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Issue #1670      January 28, 2015

Concern over welfare card

The Abbott government is pushing ahead with investigations into a cashless welfare card, despite several of its own reports finding that compulsory income management is ineffective and, in some cases, harmful.

In a joint statement, more than 30 signatories including the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), Secretariat for National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC), and the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS), called on the government to reject any expansion of income management.

“We are united in our strong opposition to the proposal contained in the Andrew Forrest Review of Indigenous Training and Employment Programs for a ‘healthy welfare’ card, which we believe would be demeaning, invasive, unworkable and bureaucratic, creating an entire sub-class of millions of people in the Australian community,” the statement said.

A spokesperson for Social Services Minister Scott Morrison said the government was evaluating income management and looking at options to “streamline the program and improve effectiveness, including opportunities provided by emerging card technologies”, including talks with the banking, financial and retail industry.

“The government is committed to helping stabilise the lives of vulnerable families and reduce social dysfunction where it exists in some communities,” the spokesperson said.

“As part of this commitment, the government wants to ensure that income support payments are used in the way in which they are intended – to help meet life’s essentials. With income management, life essentials are the highest priority, and quarantined income support payments cannot be used for alcohol, tobacco, pornography or gambling.”

Congress co-chair Kirstie Parker said blanket income management was an “imposed punitive measure” with little evidence of its effectiveness.

“In fact, the latest evaluation of income management in the Northern Territory shows quite the opposite so any reasonable person would have to ask why government seems hell-bent on expanding it,” she said.

“Common sense says that if you want people to act more responsibly and to make better choices, you do not reduce their capacity to do that – you support them to do it. Blanket income management is a short-term opportunistic and blunt approach that falls far short if weighed up against more meaningful measures.”

SNAICC chief executive Frank Hytten said the Basics Card – used as an income management tool in the NT and some other trial sites – had stigmatised people on welfare.

“Having a card that you have to produce tells the whole supermarket that you are someone who is not seen as competent, not seen as capable of managing money,” he said. “One of the most important things for human beings is to feel in charge of our own lives. This is a fundamental breach of human rights.”

However, Morrison’s spokesperson claimed the evidence showed that income management was “having a positive impact on helping vulnerable people stabilise their lives”.

“Income management assists in housing stability; provides protection from financial harassment and exploitation; and ensures that money is available for life’s essentials,” she said. “Income management assists each person to set their own budget more effectively. It assists them to make the choices which help them to provide for themselves and their families over the long term.”

But the spokesperson’s claims are entirely opposite to a report released by the Department of Social Services in December, looking at income management in the NT.

“There was no evidence of changes in spending patterns, including food and alcohol sales, other than a slight possible improvement in the incidence of running out of money for food by those on Voluntary Income Management, but no change for those on compulsory income management. The data show that spending on Basics Card on fruit and vegetables is very low,” the government commissioned study says.

Parker said the continual cherry picking from reports by successive governments was eroding trust in Indigenous communities.

“There’s been little acknowledgement by government representatives – ministers and the like – that income management and the stigma that goes with it have been detrimental in terms of our people’s sense of control, responsibility and self-worth – and that hurts,” she said.

Parker suggested that helping people access cheaper healthy food, creating better and more culturally inclusive school environments, and supporting community-driven alcohol initiatives would be more effective ways to support Indigenous people on welfare.

Koori Mail

Next article – Uniting Church condemns strip searching of Christian protesters

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