It is almost impossible to imagine the day that the Australian Council of Social Service advocates tackling welfare dependency. Last week, it said it would never support any individual at any time having to wait before they access welfare payments. Not even for a month.
This is on top of its desire to scrap income management and other conditions on welfare. It seems the only welfare change it seeks is an increase in the size of payments. ACOSS may think it is being morally principled, but it fails to realise that while welfare is a safety net, it can also create dependency and misery.
Noel Pearson says it explains the social crisis of his indigenous communities. But the most forceful comments have come from veteran land rights activist and former Australian of the year, Galarrwuy Yunupingu. He says welfare kills, such is its all-pervasive power to suck the life out of individuals.
Indigenous communities have been most acutely hit by welfare dependency, but it can happen anywhere, sapping people of motivation and spirit. Free houses have contributed to the problem as much as payments. Instead of working hard to build homes or save for a deposit, the way to get a house is to wait it out or use political skills to be placed higher up the housing waiting list.
Worse, the attractiveness of a free house in a remote community becomes a disincentive to seek work in regions of greater economic activity. A couple with three young kids is better off financially staying in social housing and living off welfare than moving to a town to take up an entry-level job.
ACOSS is blind to the evidence of the dangers of dependency because, to it, welfare is not a risk but an open-ended entitlement. Welfare advocates who see welfare as simply one of the ways that people receive an income cannot comprehend the purpose of the government’s suggested waiting period for the dole or other reforms; waiting for the dole would form part of an incentives structure aimed at fostering social norms and values that reject reliance as a choice.
To welfare advocates, the Abbott government’s proposed changes amount to robbing people of their money. On the other hand, those who see the inherent risks of welfare will appreciate a system that does its utmost to support people to make the right choices at every point. Never being on welfare is easier than trying to get off welfare.
Our objective is to instil in every young person that welfare is not an attractive option after school. The knowledge that it will not be possible to quit school, training or a job and get cash in the hand must be internalised.
Consequently, we suggest the dole should not be immediately available for school-leavers. Rather, youth allowance will be available for those who want to improve their skills.
Support for mobility has never been more generous. A jobseeker can receive up to $6000 if they move for a job — $9000 if they have kids — and under-30s who stay employed for two years receive an extra $6500. "Earn or learn" for under-30s is restoring welfare to its original purpose: a safety net if one falls on tough times. We must look after the vulnerable, but there is nothing compassionate about encouraging dependency.