Budget 2011–12: Welfare reforms to change personal behaviour
The Budget contains a number of measures that aim to bring about change in the personal behaviour of welfare recipients. This reflects the growing emphasis by the Government on addressing what it describes as the ‘corrosive’ effects of welfare. That is, the idea that while welfare is necessary for the alleviation of disadvantage it also has a role in maintaining or possibly even causing disadvantage.
During the 2010 election campaign, Labor’s main welfare policy committed a re-elected Gillard Government to the task of modernising Australia’s welfare system through ‘creating opportunity’ and ‘requiring responsibility’. The policy referred to the need ‘to spread the dignity and purpose of work, end the corrosive aimlessness of welfare and bring more Australians into mainstream economic and social life’.
A central theme of government policy in this area has been the need to support or induce the adoption of more responsible behaviours in particular communities by, for example, placing conditions on eligibility for welfare payments or on how welfare payments may be spent. The best known example of this is income management. Under this policy, a percentage of the income support and family payments of certain people is set aside to be spent on priority goods and services, such as food, housing, clothing, education and health care. Those subject to compulsory income management include certain categories of welfare recipients in the Northern Territory (NT) deemed to be ‘individuals at risk’, welfare recipients in the NT and Western Australia (WA) whom a child protection officer has referred to Centrelink to have their income managed, and welfare recipients in Cape York whom a statutory body, the Family Responsibilities Commission, has ordered should be subject to income management for engaging in dysfunctional behaviour. Individuals may also participate in income management on a voluntary basis.
Budget measures in the area of personal responsibility and behavioural change include:
- Introduction of child protection and voluntary income management in locations ‘experiencing high levels of social disadvantage’, namely: Playford (SA), Shepparton (Vic), Bankstown (NSW), Rockhampton and Logan (Qld) ($117.5 million over five years)
- Continuation of the Cape York Welfare Reform Trial, a program aimed at rebuilding social norms in Cape York communities by linking the receipt of welfare payments to fulfilment of socially responsible behaviours ($16.1 million over two years)
- Continuation of the child protection and voluntary income management trial in WA ($17.9 million in 2011–12)
- Introduction of compulsory participation plans and support for teenage parents ‘in achieving educational qualifications to assist them to gain future employment’ in 10 disadvantaged local government areas (LGAs), namely: Playford (SA), Hume and Shepparton (Vic), Burnie (Tas), Bankstown, Wyong and Shellharbour (NSW), Rockhampton and Logan (Qld) and Kwinana (WA) ($47.3 million over four years)
- Introduction of a trial for new participation requirements and support services for parents who have been on income support for more than two years or who are under 23 years of age in the 10 LGAs listed above—with the requirement that they meet regularly with Centrelink in order to set personal and family goals, and receive assistance in accessing pre-vocational, community, health and educational services ($71.1 million over four years)
- Continuation of the School Attendance and Enrolment Measure (SEAM), a program being trialled in the NT and Queensland under which parents can have welfare payments suspended if their children are not enrolled at or do not attend school ($6.4 million over two years)
- Introduction of changes making the payment of the Family Tax Benefit Part A Supplement for a child turning four in a particular income year conditional on the child having received a basic health assessment—this fulfils a commitment made by the Government in the 2010 election campaign ($12.1 million over five years).
Funding for the above measures totals $288.4 million. The measures are an indication of the Government’s growing commitment to the role of personal behavioural change in overcoming disadvantage (sometimes described as ‘new paternalism’). It is also notable that several of the measures involve interventions in particular disadvantaged communities. This reflects growing interest on the part of the Government in what are known as ‘location based initiatives’—programs that draw on research indicating that disadvantage tends to cluster in particular geographical locations.
The specific measures raise a number of questions, including how the Government decided which locations would be included, whether exemptions from the measures are possible and how the measures will be evaluated (what would constitute success?).
General questions related to the growing emphasis on new paternalist measures include: what limits ought there be on the nature and extent of interventions in the lives of welfare recipients; and, to what extent can welfare reforms cause individuals to change their behaviours in a meaningful and enduring way (is there a risk of creating even further dependency?)?