The state of welfare: reimagining support in the wake of Covid-19

The state of welfare: reimaging support in the wake of Covid-19

For too long, the state has used welfare to control the poor. This crisis is our chance to imagine a new system that embraces freedom.

Australia’s crash into recession has pushed our welfare state into the spotlight. Hundreds of thousands of Australians have lost their jobs and whole regions have been forced to a standstill. We emerged from a national economic shutdown only to encounter a second, brutal pandemic wave. A record number of Australians are locked out of work, and pictures of Centrelink queues dominated early coverage of the pandemic. This begs the question: what kind of system are these people facing, and what does the future hold for Australia’s welfare state?

The newly unemployed will find that Australia’s welfare system is not designed to help them. Instead it seeks to control their lives. Welfare is used to police the poor, reinforce a culture of work, and promote shame among those who need help. This is backed by a regime of punishment and obligation, which promotes jobseeking but fails to place people in work. In the midst of an unprecedented pandemic and a historic downturn, this system may finally come under threat.

A culture of work

Work is at the centre of our culture. Hard work is idealised, and most of our time is structured around our jobs. Many of us spend more time with colleagues than with our own friends and family. The years of our lives are shaped by the work we do, and even our most important life choices – like when to start a family or begin essential health treatments – are dictated to us by our jobs. This culture of work has shaped the welfare state.

Work has also come to define our citizenship. In the political lexicon ‘taxpayer’ has become synonymous with ‘citizen’, reminding us all that we must make an income from work to participate in society. Sometimes this message is overt. The Abbott Government’s famous reference to ‘lifters and leaners’ is a standout example. Others are more subtle, showing how unknowingly we accept these norms – pensioners are people who spent their lives working and paying taxes, while young people are described as the future of society. These sound like harmless clichés, but they imply that the young and old should not be valued for who they are now. All that matters is what they do when they are capable of work.

If work is a norm, then worklessness is deviant. Of course, not all worklessness threatens the social order. Retirement and paid leave are encouraged because they reinforce our culture of work. Yet many other forms of work, like caring for elderly relatives or looking after children, go unrecognised. Other forms of labour are acknowledged in condescending ways, but are not accorded the benefits of paid work. Lifelong volunteers may be recognised with certificates and words of thanks, but they are still treated as jobless.

Even still, there is a deviance worse than worklessness: idleness. Fear of idleness runs through the welfare state and can be traced to its origins. The Elizabethan Poor Laws, for example, came about from fear of the idle poor. The laws were designed to maintain social control and order, based not on the state’s responsibility to its citizens but a fear of popular rebellion. The ‘impotent’ poor were entitled to some support, but able-bodied people were forced to work. Early poor houses were also workhouses, and those caught begging could be tortured or put to death. In spite of all that has changed, an obsession with production still runs through the culture of work and welfare. To be poor and workless is bad enough, but to be poor and idle is immoral and even dangerous.

Shame is the final pillar of the modern welfare state. If work confers citizenship, then it stands to reason that the unemployed will be subjected to shame – especially in an economic system that treats unemployment as a personal failing rather than a structural one. Shame itself is a form of social control, driving people to conform to norms. Most of us try to be seen as hardworking and hide signs of our idleness to avoid being shamed. In this way, shame stems from other social norms while reinforcing them. The deserving poor are not only hardworking, they are also ashamed of their poverty.

Welfare as control

Perhaps nothing embodies Australia’s welfare state better than the catchphrase that ‘the best form of welfare is a job.’ The slogan was first used by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and has been a mainstay of Australian Government talking points for years. It signals the Government’s use of welfare to reinforce its norms around work – the goal is not to help people find work, but to create a culture of work.

On the surface, an emphasis on work seems to run through the welfare system. People who are out of work need to show that they’re searching for jobs, running a gauntlet of applications, interviews, and placements. There are internships for young people, Work for the Dole placements for jobseekers, and a special version of Work for the Dole for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The privatised Jobactive network is also paid to put people through this process and get them job-ready, adding a veneer of goodwill to the system. Even people with disabilities and seniors are forced to become jobseekers.

Here’s the rub: none of this is leading to work. The youth internship program was widely ridiculed as a failure, and may even have cost jobs by offering cheap, disposable labour to businesses who would otherwise hire staff. Work for the dole somehow leaves people less employable than when they signed up, and the Government’s own reviews have slammed its Aboriginal work for the dole scheme as pointless and harmful to those who take part. Jobactive is at best a joke, or at worst an elaborate scam for providers to skim public money at the expense of the vulnerable. Inquiries into the scheme have reported that “participants are gaining employment in spite of Jobactive, not because of it.”

A rational person might conclude that people would be better left to their own devices, with real help available to those who want it. Such an approach couldn’t possibly be worse than the system we already have, and it would certainly be less wasteful. But it would also be an acknowledgement that most unemployment is structural, that there aren’t always enough jobs for those who want them, and that people can judge for themselves how to use their time. It would also put an end to the theatre of jobseeking, which reinforces the centrality of work. This pretence has never been more absurd – with 1.6 million Australians now looking for work and ten jobseekers for every vacancy, why are people being forced to apply for jobs that literally aren’t there?

Other aspects of the system don’t even pretend to be about work, but are simply about busyness. People getting welfare payments are forced into needless reporting, administration, and ‘training’ that isn’t linked to their job prospects. Young people are pushed into courses on resumé formatting and word processing that they don’t need, while mothers are forced into parenting classes that actually get in the way of parenting. The system is full of bureaucracy and pointless tasks. Centuries after the Elizabethan Poor Laws, the state remains obsessed with the idleness of the poor.

On top of it all, the system is backed by the most compliance-heavy regime in the developed world. Far from saving money, compliance comes at a hefty cost. Jobactive providers are actually paid to breach their clients with ‘demerit points’, and any savings made are small. Other efforts are eye-wateringly expensive. The Government’s program to drug test Centrelink clients is believed to cost $5.6 million for 5,000 people. If 10 percent fail their drug tests as the Government sensationally predicts, it will cost over $11,000 for each positive result. This far outstrips the savings made from suspending payments.

Put simply, compliance is about shame not savings. Drug tests, debt collectors, and demerit points are not deemed successful when they save money, but when they catch people breaking the rules. These measures were designed to send the message that people on welfare are cheats. Once this perception is created, even those who comply end up being suspect. Among the poor themselves, this reinforces a sense of shame, gratitude, and compliance.

Instead of helping people, today’s welfare system is used to control the poor – their behaviour, their time, and their money. Rather than being upfront about its agenda for control, the state now tells people that it’s all for their own good. After all, the best form of welfare is a job.

Freedom and universalism

The question is, where to from here? To move away from shame and control, we must reimagine a welfare state that is based on two pillars.

The first pillar is universalism. Studies show that the most popular aspects of Australia’s safety net are Medicare and the age pension. They are also the most universal. Everyone is eligible for a Medicare rebate, and all but the wealthiest retirees receive a pension. These have been the hardest benefits to cut. The short-lived Medicare freeze was loathed by the public and has now been reversed. Proposals to raise the pension age were dumped after a public backlash. Meanwhile targeted payments, like JobSeeker and Youth Allowance, have stagnated and are singled out for punishment and control.

This is because universalism guards against stigma. As Ben Spies-Butcher has argued, when more people get a benefit it becomes normalised and its constituency becomes more powerful. Universalism also makes it harder to divide groups. People who use Medicare can’t be pitted against taxpayers because most of us are both. Former Treasurer Joe Hockey tested this approach and was punished for it. By the same token, our low unemployment rates and targeted welfare system made it much easier to scapegoat the jobless before the Covid crisis.

But universalism highlights a major tension for progressives. Much of the Left has accepted the Right’s rhetoric about scarcity, moving away from universal programs and towards benefits that are targeted to people at the margins of society. This may seem like a rational move – it makes sense to focus on those in need. But the further we go down this road, the more vulnerable these people become to cuts, scapegoating, and policing by the state. It would also be a mistake for Australia to follow New Zealand’s example and create a special benefit for people who have lost work as a result of the pandemic. The Ardern Government’s new hierarchy gives more benefits to people unemployed since the downturn, while those who were out of work before the pandemic remain at the bottom. The Australian Government could still adopt this approach, and it must be resisted.

The growing number of unemployed Australians now hold the key to dignity in welfare. As the pandemic wears on, it will be much harder to reinstate cuts to the JobSeeker payment with record numbers of people out of work. The professional classes are also unlikely to tolerate pointless obligations and belittling busy-work. This gives us a historic opportunity to fight for truly universal welfare, like living wages or a basic income, that go beyond JobSeeker and the current downturn. Payments that go to the professional and middle classes are harder to cut than targeted benefits, and their impact could be much more profound. Targeted programs can be helpful, but only universal programs are transformational.

The second pillar of welfare must be freedom. People should have the freedom to do as they choose – to work or not work, to use their time however they see fit, to be idle if they like. The Left has a tendency to argue that the poor will always make the ‘right’ choices when left to their own devices, and that given the right information they would be just like ‘us’. Stereotypes of unemployed young people spending their days at the beach and idle hours with friends are often countered with facts about how hardworking poor people are and how wisely they use their time. This might be true, but it also doesn’t matter. Why shouldn’t anyone take a trip to the beach if it brings them joy? It would certainly be a better use of time than the mendacious theatre of mutual obligation.

An approach grounded in freedom will mean abandoning many pet projects of the centre-Left. Notions of blue-collar workers being redeployed in eco-tourism, efforts to turn the unemployed into entrepreneurs through micro-financing, and sugar taxes will all have to go. Some of these ideas are far-fetched and others are paternalistic. Almost all buy into notions of deservingness and shame that need to be challenged if we want a welfare state that is based on dignity and respect.

The right may fear the idleness of the poor, but the left has no need to. People will find worthwhile, or simply enjoyable, things to do with their time if they are given the chance. A culture of leisure and freedom among the poor could only be a positive thing, especially if it expands to everybody else. As Benjamin Hunnicutt has observed, work culture is driven by “a fear of freedom – a fear among the powerful that people might find something better to do than create profits for capitalism.”

For too long welfare has been about control. Instead of helping people, the system has policed how they spend their time, use their money, and approach their lives. If the welfare state is about promoting a culture of work and shame, then this crisis is our chance to challenge that culture. Universalism will give people dignity and build support for the system, and trust will give people the power to manage their own time and live their own lives.

We must now reimagine a welfare state that embraces freedom, not control.