There is a growing narrative being peddled by the Morrison government that more generous welfare payments are stopping people looking for jobs. This new "welfare war", accompanied by strong government denials about plans to permanently raise social security benefits, provide reason to suspect this narrative is paving the way to a return to the old Newstart levels of payments.
If this is the case, we are about to witness poor policy resulting from an unsound evidence base, that will have (presumably unforeseen and unintended) consequences on Australian kids who are totally powerless over whether the adults in their home can find a job.
Recently the Prime Minister told 2GB about "a lot of anecdotal feedback from small businesses, even large businesses, where some of them are finding it hard to get people to come and take the shifts because they're on these higher levels of payment."
The PM's comments seem to be based on a survey of 2324 employers, of whom just 72 (3.1 per cent) cited a lack of applicants as a reason for struggling to find employees.
At the same time, we learn from the ABS that there are around 13 unemployed Australians for each job vacancy.
It's clear now, as it was before COVID-19 hit, that low unemployment benefits don't create jobs for families. But analysis conducted by the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth suggests that they do have a profound and potentially life-long impact on children. If only we could get the PM listening to the lived-experience stories emerging from these families.
We seem to be headed back to a punitive system of unemployment benefits which will not create jobs, but will cost our children dearly.
Our To Have and to Have Not report last year found children in jobless families were more likely to suffer from a greater number of deprivations than any other group examined. For example, they are more than four times more likely to be homeless than kids in families where an adult is able to find work, nearly twice as likely to be bullied or face social exclusion, and almost two and a half times more likely to be missing out on learning at home.
We also know from other ARACY work that what happens to a child in their early years can have negative impacts that reverberate throughout their lives, robbing them of their potential.
Analysis of global evidence in which we have been involved found adult conditions such as coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer are now being linked to pathways that originated prior to or during a child's first 1000 days. And it's not just the child and their family who suffer. When things get off to a bad start, there are huge costs for the whole community in not acting early. A recent report by CoLab and their partners found Australian governments spend $15.2 billion each year on high-intensity and crisis services "for problems that may have been prevented had we invested earlier and more wisely". To put this in perspective, this is almost three times the value of Australia's annual wheat exports.
It doesn't have to be this way. It is possible to intervene in the lives of children and families to make a change - and while it is never too late to do so, the earlier, the better.
For example, work ARACY and partners have done with PwC Australia found that if every child in Australia spent their first three years in stable housing, our economy would be $3 billion better off each year, and that if all pregnant mothers in Australia were able to cease smoking, our economy would be $1 billion better off each year.
But if we are to have good policy, our governments must base it on good evidence. Sadly, as the narrative around unemployment benefits develops, we appear to be seeing a repeat of a well-established pattern of ignoring evidence, to the determent of our children.
Late last year, two think tanks, the "left leaning" Per Capita and the "right-leaning" Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), were commissioned by the newDemocracy Foundation to separately analyse federal and state government policies against attributes of good decision-making. They found government is failing to apply best practice in developing public policy.
This is not merely an academic exercise. For example, ignoring the evidence put forward by Professor Garnaut that "fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense", and that this "should be directly observable by 2020", saw Australia caught totally unprepared to deal with the bushfire disaster of last summer. Worryingly for our children, we are now failing to do enough to prevent future conflagrations.
It appears the disregard for evidence remains, as does a disregard for the impacts to our children caused by ill-informed policy.
As such, we seem to be headed back to a punitive system of unemployment benefits which will not create jobs, but will cost our children dearly - all seemingly based on the unsubstantiated view held by some that Australians are lazy.
ARACY urges the federal government to base its policies on robust evidence and to consider the impacts punitive social security payments have on children.
Our kids cannot be collateral damage in the welfare wars.
- Penny Dakin is chief executive of the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth.