The significance of the Welfare Review to single parents by wxr16887


									 Paper presented to ACOSS Congress 2000
        Canberra November 16-17.

Welfare Reform -(Whose) Vision or Mirage?
           By Elspeth McInnes

 I begin this examination of Welfare Reform as Vision or Mirage with the observation that
   neither is reality, and the shape of the future will be the outcome of a struggle to define
                               welfare reform and its outcomes.

I propose to speak from the reality of an Anglo culture single mother, community sector
worker, taxpayer, citizen and income support recipient and the material reality that status
creates. I live and work with people on low incomes, many with limited job prospects,
people with care responsibilities for dependent others, and who are often also dealing with
chronic health problems or living with some level of disability. The immediate meaning of
Welfare Reform in this population can be summarised as the proposed extension of
compulsory economic participation activities within the policy framework of Mutual

The question I want to address in this paper is „what are the drivers to expand compulsory
workforce participation activities to new groups?‟ In considering that question I look at
three possible explanations.

The first is the „welfare dependency thesis‟ in which people are proposed to be at risk of
forgetting how to work or wanting to work and need to be shown what to do for their own
good. That is, we have to expand workforce activity testing to fix the problems with the

The second is the „taxpayer/dependent‟ dichotomy, which is in some ways a restatement of
the first theory, but here the emphasis is on the taxpayer, not the dependent. This dichotomy
appeals to the moral superiority of the taxpayer to endorse the disciplining of indigent

A third approach is to consider the impact of globalisation and the nexus between the
welfare system and the labour market.

Expanding Compulsory Economic Activity

The most defined content of compulsory economic activity which emerged from the Final
Report of the Reference Group on Welfare Reform was a compulsory annual career
planning interview for parents of primary school aged children and compulsory workforce
participation plans for parents of children aged 13 to 16. The extension of compulsory
economic activity to people living with a disability was also recommended (McClure 2000).

The McClure Report enunciates an expanded version of citizenship through employment.
Groups such as carers, and people with a disability are proposed to be collectively
redefined, along with unemployed people, as people of workforce age who are obliged to
support themselves through paid work. Historically Australian society has resolved the
social issue of care by allowing people providing care and people needing care to receive
income support in recognition of the additional restrictions and obligations they are already
dealing with.

Mutual obligation redefines unpaid care relationships, often provided within families, as a
dispensable private luxury, readily exchangeable with market services. Such redefinition
reduces the social value of decommodified care relationships and volunteer contributions to
a residual personal indulgence - a lifestyle choice - to be placed after the „mutual obligation‟
of maximising market income. To this end all persons of workforce age become redefined
as labour market participants and continuation of eligibility as a basic consumption unit
becomes contingent on the adequate performance of set tasks.

Welfare Dependency
In the first framework in which people are theorised as being at risk of welfare dependency,
the tasks set as a condition of access to income support are supposed to ensure that people
are job ready, are looking for jobs and are keen to get jobs. This is grounded in a belief
that there are many jobs available if only people would care to take them up. But there are
not many jobs. In some depressed regions the lists of long-term unemployed are already

Why make economic participation activity compulsory for new groups when voluntary
programs are already oversubscribed? Many people with disabilities are already serving
time on waiting lists to get employment assistance. Similarly single parents are already
extremely active in work and study activities, with 72 percent undertaking paid work or
study within a 12 month period (Landt and Pech 2000) and 55 percent in the workforce in
September 2000.

The concept of welfare dependency, as articulated in the United States, is not reflected in
Australian data (Eardley 2000). The average duration on Parenting Payment Single is
around three years (FACS 1998). The Department of Family and Community Services
study of single parents who had been out of the workforce for some time found that nearly
one in four was unlikely to be able to work because of cumulative disadvantages including
children with disabilities or a disability themselves, as well as lack of labour market
skills(Pearse 2000). We know that the voluntary JET labour market program for single
parents and other carers has been enthusiastically used. There are waiting lists for access to
the Jobs Education and Training Program for carers and parents. In short there is little
empirical evidence that the drivers for the expansion of compulsory workforce activity rest
with the behaviour of carers or people with disabilities receiving income support.

Taxpayer/Dependent Dichotomy
This brings me to the taxpayer/dependent dichotomy in which we shift the focus from the
deficiencies of the income support recipient to the expectations of the taxpayers. In this
discourse, citizens without market income are obliged to contribute specified activities in
return for basic income support. This is argued as a moral exchange between the
government, collectively personified as the taxpayer, and the supplicant seeker of welfare -
the dependent who is characterised as parasitic, and who must therefore redeem their claim
through the performance of specified tasks.

The invocation of a simplistic dichotomy between the productive taxpayer and the parasitic
welfare dependent has always been more a rhetorical device than a reality, as many income
support payments are taxable, most income support recipients have been employed and

paid income taxes, as well as taxes on imports, luxuries, petrol, alcohol, cigarettes and so
on. The proportion of taxes paid by low income earners, including income support
recipients, has in fact increased with the GST as proportionately more income is spent on
basic essentials. Even children‟s pocket money spent on snacks now contributes to
Treasury, so we can at least leave behind the rhetoric of division between taxpayer and
dependent and clear the way to recognise that we are, as a society, essentially
interdependent. We are all taxpayers and at some times in our lives, depend on the care of
others. Rather than determining what conditions taxpayers should impose on people without
wage income, we might ask how it is that hungry homeless taxpayers are not getting the
benefit from a growth economy. What should welfare be doing in terms of distribution of
wealth to ensure that people are not tipped into crisis and are able to sustain social and
economic participation? The distribution of employment is of course the ready answer
implied within the framework of the McClure Report.

But how far can this take us? Are we really saying that there is a realisable expectation that
there will be enough jobs for all people who are of workforce age to be employed at wages
sufficient to sustain them independently of the welfare system? Hands up the economists
who believe this.

The dramatic expansion in the pool of labour implied by this shift in definition set me
thinking about the implications for the terms of available employment, particularly in the
context of the globalisation of finance, production and labour markets. I recalled the
following quote from Professor Anna Yeatman‟s analysis in 1992 of the impact of
globalisation on citizenship in welfare states in nations with organised labour:

        Once the ordinary working person faces competition from low wage labour
        in non-welfare states, and under conditions where there are economic
        incentives for multi-national corporations to move national location, the
        worker risks both their employment and their welfare. Under these
        circumstances the state reduces welfare to the minimum safety net, thereby

        reducing the bargaining strength labour brings to negotiating pay and work
        conditions. This in turn works to cheapen labour (Yeatman 1992: 453).

        Increasing the pool of labour also reduces bargaining strength and
        works to cheapen labour.

        Drawing on new groups of workers who have historically been outside
        organised labour reduces bargaining strength and works to cheapen

        Reducing centralised wage-fixing systems also reduces bargaining
        strength and works to cheapen labour.

The above analysis succinctly set the scene for the 1990s and the advance of globalisation
through Australian public policy. The globalisation of finance, production and labour
markets has greatly constrained the sovereignty of nation-states, subordinating national
governments to adapting their finance, production and labour markets, as well as the
citizenry, to global competition. In global terms the problem for national governments in
high wage democracies with organised labour became one of finding ways to cheapen
labour without political loss.

It is in this context that we as citizens and a community sector seek to maintain a claim to a
welfare safety net which provides for those without access to market income because of
lack of employment, and those who experience restrictions on access to jobs arising from
location, discrimination, illness, disability or caring responsibilities. It is in this context that
the new morality of the citizen as worker, denoted in the „mutual obligation‟ framework, has
become the guiding light of social policy endeavour.

The expansion of mutual obligation and compulsory activity testing to new groups will
increase competition for available jobs. Onerous reporting and activity testing provides
opportunities for expenditure savings through withdrawing income from those who fail, but
also provides further disincentives to claimants to remain on income support. Increased

desperation for jobs amongst more people, particularly those who have historically had little
access to support from organised labour, serves to drive down the conditions of
employment. The expansion of casual and part-time jobs, without access to in-work
benefits has increased the numbers of working poor.

The expansion of compulsory economic activity to new groups can be understood within this
analysis as a means broadening the pool of available labour, thereby increasing competition
and decreasing the costs of labour. Making people more desperate for work makes them
more willing to accept poor conditions and low wages.

Politically there are difficulties with reducing the level of income support payments however
the survival base of families can also be reduced through changing family payments. The
reduction in income to support dependent children increases pressure to seek paid work.

This analysis therefore also accounts for the July 1 reduction in the proportion of Family
Tax Benefit paid to single parent households through re-distributing it to usually waged non-
resident parents who stay in contact with their children.

It was puzzling to me that a payment initially designed to reduce poverty in low-income
families was being redistributed away from parents with dependent children who were solely
reliant on income support and paid instead to wage-earners. Single parents continue to be
at high risk of poverty so reductions in payments could only increase levels of poverty. Why
plan to increase poverty amongst the poorest families? It doesn‟t make sense unless the
overall direction is to increase single parents‟ desperation for more income and therefore
their willingness to accept work on any terms.

Mutual Obligation can, in my view, thus be best understood as a discursive framework
from which to manage the expansion of the ranks of the working poor to further reduce a
relatively high wage labour market, and increase the relative attractions of Australia for
corporate investment.

It is in this context that we, as a community sector advocating on behalf of citizens who have
been restructured out of jobs, those who are discriminated against in competition for
employment, those who have carer responsibilities or disability restrictions precluding
employment, must deal with the „collateral damage‟ arising from adapting the welfare system
to optimise competitive efficiency in global labour markets.

Reality Bites
This brings me back to the kitchen sink. My children are not interested in any of these
arguments but they are acutely aware of competing demands on their mother‟s time. To
return to an analysis informed by the reality of a single parent, the trade-offs between
compulsory paid work activities and the obligations of care appear to presuppose a care-
free child - a reinvention of a carefree childhood. No longer requiring access to parental
care, the care -free child rises, eats and attends school by itself , travels home alone,
completes its homework and after school commitments, prepares meals, cleans and washes
up, tells itself about its day, maintains its own health and puts itself to bed with a hug and a
kiss. It knows the parent would be there if they could be, and that they are important and
valued and alone.

In the UK there is evidence emerging that requiring single parents of teenagers to work has
increased adverse outcomes for adolescents. There are no alternative care services for 13 to
16 year olds and nobody has any real idea of what such services would be like if they
existed. Where would they be located, how would they be structured, what needs would
they meet? These questions have yet to be asked, let alone answered, yet we face a
proposal to extend compulsory workforce participation to single parents of teenagers.

The proposal to require workforce participation by single parents of teenagers sits beside
evidence that teenagers increasingly face a range of critical issues needing parental support.
These include bullying, truanting and leaving school early, minor street crime, drug and
alcohol issues, sexuality issues, mental health problems and suicide. The address to the issue
of youth suicide needs to support parents in caring for their young people.

Parents are a significant protective force in children‟s lives. Children of single parents often
have only one parent available to them. Many have dealt with the trauma and upheaval of
separation, of which more than one-third will involve violence. Will restricting parents‟
choices about caring appropriately for their children improve outcomes for vulnerable young
people? I would argue that it is vital to young people‟s well-being that parents retain
flexibility and choice about their level of labour market involvement.

In this analysis of welfare reform I have sought to unpack some possible drivers for the
expansion of compulsory economic activity to new groups under the banner of „mutual
obligation‟. I conclude that neither the theory of the risk of welfare dependency, nor the
discourse of moral obligation to the taxpayer is sufficiently grounded in empirical reality to be
accepted. I argue that what we are seeing in the proposed extension of workforce
obligations to new groups is perhaps driven, in overall terms, by the impact of globalisation
and the consequent requirement to reduce the decommodifaction of labour through the
welfare system, to increase competition and cheapen the cost and terms of labour supply.

In conclusion I would argue that there is no clear indication that the Australian labour market
needs an injection of cheap flexible labour given current rates of unemployment. As the data
in the McClure report summarises, there are regional areas of very high unemployment and
the distribution of jobs will not be resolved by expanding economic activity testing to new

There is evidence that the activity testing and breaching regime applied to students and
unemployed people has been unevenly distributed to vulnerable groups, with indigenous
young people at highest risk of losing income. Increased homelessness, increased demand
on charities and increased distress and despair in areas of high unemployment have been
noted as the adverse outcomes of the current approach to applying compulsion.

But perhaps in terms of disciplining the low-wage labour market these outcomes could be
re-scripted as „success‟. In such terms this vision could refer to having a price to pay for
progress, strong investment and continuing economic growth. It all depends how you see it,
and that is shaped, inevitably, by how you live.

We need to be asking ourselves anew whether there is any social opportunity to maintain
decommodified relations of care - that is to continue to allow people to choose to draw
income support to provide care to a dependent other - or whether the carer must be made
to get a paid job and the cared-for must be placed in paid care.

We need to be asking questions about the relationship between low-income casual flexible
wages and the income support system. Will the income support system be used to top up
the declining real value of wages and compensate for the insecurity of the contemporary
labour market? How can citizens gain access to regular income sufficient to make long term
financial commitments such as buying a home, or having a family?

Welfare reform is but one part of a larger social and economic context of growing wage
inequality, declining full-time work and expanding child poverty. People receiving welfare
have faced an increased struggle to keep their income, to make it stretch further, and to
maintain their dignity in the face of demands that they perform more and more tasks to be
worthy of their subsistence dollar. Welfare reform needs to build on structures and
resources which sustain people‟s choices.

Embracing the positive directions of the welfare reform report, there is hope that new jobs
in new areas may emerge from a new willingness to invest in social infrastructure such as
housing, transport, education and training , health services, disability support, family support
and alternative care services which will enable disadvantaged jobseekers to voluntarily take
advantage of their opportunities for employment as their caring responsibilities or disability
restrictions allow.

In closing I would invite you to consider Fiona Williams‟ Good Enough Principles for
Welfare (summarised blow) in articulating a democratic vision of the social relations of

Fiona Williams, 1999, Journal of Social Policy (28) 4: 667-687.

1. Interdependence
Rather than the dependency/independence dichotomy organised around the market, we could have a
principle of interdependence, which accepts that we are all necessarily dependent on others, while
challenging institutions, structures and social relations which force some groups to be unnecessarily

2. Care
We all at some time care and are cared for. The ethic of care assumes relationships of interdependence.
The practice of care involves values of attentiveness, responsiveness, competence and responsibility,
negotiation and mutual recognition. It is through caring and being cared for that we take account of
others, providing a ground for the practice of citizenship involving responsibility, tolerance and an
awareness of diversity.

3. Intimacy
 Intimate relationships are often also care relationships, based on family ties, or sometimes paid care.
Relationships of intimacy have become more about mutually agreed commitment than duty. They are
not automatically exchangeable for commodified care. The democratisatio n of intimate relationships has
also forced a recognition that inequality in care relationships can leave vulnerable people subject to
violence and abuse.

4. Bodily Integrity
Welfare interventions have historically relied on the classification of the fit vs the unfit - an example is
the forced sterilisation of girls with intellectual disabilities - the subjects of such classification have
however begun to assert the right to define and control their own bodies as fundamental to the
maintenance of the autonomy of citizens.

5. Identity
Identity denotes both a sense of self and a sense of belonging - offering a vital way for understanding
individual struggles for self-realisation. In welfare systems identity can easily become a static category
of administration, however it also provides a focal point of political identity and empowerment of
marginalised groups.

6. Transnational Welfare
The transnationalism in markets, corporations and political institutions has been matched by
transnationalism in social movements at grass-roots levels. Can transnational welfare structures be
developed to support populations forced to migrate due to war, persecution or economic necessity.

7. Voice
The experience of users of welfare services and their own definition of their needs is central to the
organisation and delivery of welfare services. The democratisation of provider-user relations is an
emergent site for the pursuit of active citizenship, in place of a client citizenship.

In a reconstituted politics of welfare the ethic of paid work can be counterbalanced with:
 a collective sharing of labour market and care risks.
 democratic forms of representation and dialogue with users
 respect and recognition of identity, intimacy and bodily integrity
 a commitment to a multi-racial society with transnational co-operation


Eardley, T. 2000, „Sole Parents and “Welfare Dependency”‟, SPRC Newsletter 76.
        Social Policy Research Centre, Sydney.

Family and Community Services Department, 1998, Some Common Questions About
        Lone Parents Answered, Parenting Policy Section, Canberra.

Landt, J. and Pech, J., 2000, „Work and Welfare in Australia: The Changing Role of
        Income Support‟, 7th AIFS Conference, Sydney, 24-26 July.

McClure, P. (2000) Participation Support for a More Equitable Society: Final Report
      of the Reference Group on Welfare Reform. Canberra: Family and Community
      Services Department.

Pearse, V., 2000, „Parents‟ Participation and Planning - The Parenting Payment Intervention
        Pilot‟ , AIFS Conference, Sydney, July.

Williams, F., 1999, „Good Enough Principles for Welfare‟, Journal of Social Policy, 28
       (4): 667-687.

Yeatman A., 1992, „Women‟s Citizenship Claims, labour market policy and globalisation‟,
      Australian Journal of Political Science (27) 449-61.


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