Australia is in the midst of a debate about fairness. Unfortunately it’s happening in the absence of facts. Whether it’s changes to income support, work for the dole or income management, recent proposals are seemingly based on the idea that there are “lifters and leaners”, and that cracking down on the latter is the solution. They are based on the claim that Australia’s welfare system is spiralling out of control, despite the evidence to the contrary.
If we are going to have a debate about our welfare system, we must start with the facts. So here are a few:
The working age population receiving income support peaked in 1997 at 24.9 per cent and has fallen significantly to 16.7 per cent in 2013. McClure’s Interim Report of the Review of Welfare actually acknowledges the shrinking share of the population receiving income support, although hidden in Appendix G.
The number of income support recipients (excluding age pensioners) has fallen from 3 million people in 2003 to 2.78 million in 2013. That’s a 7.3 per cent decrease in the number of people on income support over the last decade and quite the opposite of the escalating number of "dole bludgers" we keep hearing about.
ABS data also reveals there were 146,100 total job vacancies in May 2014. That same month the total number of unemployed people was 721,300. That’s five employed people for every available job. As business leaders have pointed out, no amount of job applications is going to find all of these people work without jobs growth.
It’s hardly the picture that has been presented in the current debate – a debate that is demonising vulnerable people in order to make a case for reducing the welfare budget.
A debate where jobless youth are painted as lazy and unmotivated and where the "solution" provided is a crackdown that denies basic financial support while requiring them to apply for jobs that don’t exist.
Where is the evidence for any of this?
Frankly, there is none. The vast majority of job seekers want to work. I'm not guessing at this; we are an organisation that supported more than 100,000 jobseekers last year. What we see every day at Mission Australia is people doing everything they can to get a break.
We see young people applying for dozens of jobs, taking the opportunity to do extra training or work experience – but being constantly turned down due to lack of experience in a tight jobs market.
We see mature aged workers made redundant after years in the workforce, training for roles they hadn’t imagined, like traffic controllers, because that’s where the jobs are in their local community.
We see mums and dads who can’t find work, hunting for jobs that would fit around their families’ needs and commitments and allow them to provide for their children.
These people are not "dole bludgers". But they do rely on the welfare system, often only temporarily, so they can survive and live with dignity.
The answer to their struggles isn’t more job applications. It’s not expanding income quarantining or the removal of income support for six months at a time. There is limited evidence for many of these measures.
What the evidence actually shows is you need to invest – and early.
The Interim report of the McClure review acknowledges that early intervention for young people – helping them transition from school to work before they have the chance to become unemployed – is the right social and economic policy. The New Zealand model the McClure Review is looking at provides evidence of the return on investment achieved when you provide funding and support upfront to help young job seekers.
The evidence also shows that adequate payments are our most effective tool to combat poverty. And we have research available to guide what works to help the vulnerable overcome the challenges of joblessness in a soft labour market.
By engaging with people in need we can stop them from getting stuck in a cycle of disadvantage, exclusion, and inevitably joblessness.
But right now, we’re heading toward a scenario where the unemployed are stigmatised rather than supported into work. Where those who become so disenchanted with week after week of unsuccessful job searching are penalised – even fined – for their already demoralising failures.
Rather than a system that stigmatises the less fortunate, or takes a purely punitive approach to forcing people into participation, we should strive for a system that actually works, connecting people to training, services for complex needs and more broadly generates jobs growth - so that there are jobs for people to even apply for.
But if we don’t reset the debate and start with the facts to build evidence-based policy solutions, we will fail the thousands of unemployed Australians seeking support to regain their independence.
The number of people on welfare payments will certainly go down, but not because they have found jobs. It will be because they drop out of the system altogether, and instead become statistics in the homeless system, in our emergency wards or in our prisons. And we’ll all bear the cost.
Catherine Yeomans is the CEO of Mission Australia.