As a society we ignore the complex circumstances of so many who are out of work. Photo: Virginia Star
Charles Dickens wrote with dark humour about orphanages designed to slowly starve their charges because life was otherwise too easy for them. Similarly, the inadequate Newstart allowance (the dole) seems designed to make people sicker and poorer.
While most Australians are significantly better off than they were 10, or five, years ago – even those on relatively low incomes such as the pension – there is a group on the edges of our society who clearly are not, including most people on Newstart for any length of time.
The current Senate inquiry into the adequacy of the Newstart allowance is being inundated with research and analysis showing $245 a week is simply not enough support for people to live on, and certainly not to find a job.
When confronted with that information, responses from the two biggest political parties, and a very large slab of the commentariat, argue that the best (or only) answer is a job and imply that if you can't manage on Newstart it must be smokes, pokies, laziness or incompetence that is to blame.
Beneath these arguments are the presumptions that people on the Newstart allowance who may have out-of-date work skills, caring responsibilities or ill health don't really want to work or contribute to the community around them, and that we have a duty to make them.
The inadequacy of the allowance is thus punishment for their individual moral failings – and a necessary incentive for them to get out and get a job.
As a society we ignore the complex circumstances of so many who are out of work, although what is happening to people without enough money is clear.
Anglicare Victoria's Hardship Survey in April found almost half the people it saw on Newstart couldn't afford prescription medication or dental treatment, while 30 per cent didn't have a telephone and the same number didn't have computer skills.
Anglicare Sydney's State of Sydney report this year found a third of the households with children it sees each year are in severe housing stress, paying more that 45 per cent of their already low incomes on rent.
In this context, to expect people to stay healthy, socially connected and able to find work is both unreasonable and unconscionable.
Australia can be generous. Proof of this is the wide acceptance of the National Disability Insurance Scheme as a vital national project. But it also seems that many people support the scheme in part because they know that disability might strike them or members of their family at any moment.
We do not extend such empathy for people on Newstart. Every time we hear the expression "through no fault of their own", as we do for people with disability, there is the contrary echo back to the 19th century and "the undeserving poor".
Modern Australia began as convict settlement, a colonial process to dispose of the unwanted and unacceptable poor, the waste of industrialising Britain.
Despite the celebrated egalitarianism that defines our idea of Australia, not all that much has changed. While today there is nowhere in the world to dispose of those unable to play their part in our consumer economy, we exclude them nonetheless.
The Anglicare network has grown from Anglican communities – the Church of England – right across Australia, with many of our member agencies dating from the 19th century.
One of our common precepts is that every person matters: not because of the work they do, nor for how hard they try, but intrinsically. That is, because of their common humanity. It is a theological as well as humanitarian position shared by other religions and philosophies across Australia, but it's quite absent from the Newstart debate.
What Matters To Australians, a report of the Anatomy of Civil Societies Research Project released earlier this year, found we are mostly concerned about our immediate day-to-day lives. Our own health and well-being are our key issues, and broader global concerns have faded from view. It's no surprise. As voters and taxpayers, the very success of consumer society encourages us to look out for ourselves and our families. And even when we are asked to think more broadly, the individualised and fragmented way we form communities and select our news and information these days leads us to pay attention to people who sound and act the same as ourselves.
The issue is really one of time and place. Convicts – discarded by their own society – could find their way in the dispossession of other lands and cultures. Oliver Twist escapes the orphanage and the underworld by returning to the setting of his genteel birth. But these are modern times without the benefit of retrospection or literary licence and there is nowhere else.
We need to place at the heart of our budget decisions the people excluded from our society. When it comes to setting Newstart at a fair and adequate level, we do not need to ask can we afford it. Because we can. The question we should ask is why we don't.
Kasy Chambers is executive director of Anglicare Australia.