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An opportunity to invest in Australia's needy


Boy in wheelchair

The medley of benefits, supplements, allowances and schemes that we call welfare in Australia has developed over the years in response to real and pressing needs. It is a system that has helped us take care of one another. Nonetheless, as it has evolved like patchwork, it has grown increasingly complex for everyone involved. Payment levels have not kept pace with the cost of living, and cumulative changes have led to unintended consequences.

This complex system, riddled with inefficiencies and inequity, has its roots firmly in a world long gone. Australia’s welfare system was designed for an era where men were the breadwinners and women worked outside the home only until marriage. Unemployment was generally short term and sporadic, with payments geared to helping individuals or families over a short hump of joblessness. 

Australia is a different place now. Sixty five percent of women work, fifteen percent of families are single parent households, largely headed by women, and unemployment for too many Australians is long term and endemic. We’ve seen the rise of intergenerational unemployment, locational disadvantage and an increasingly complex mix of needs in our communities. Where thirty years ago, people came to community services seeking assistance with paying the bills, finding affordable housing, living with mental ill health, escaping family violence, gambling, alcohol or other drug addictions; it is the norm now for people to present with a cluster of these issues impacting their or their family’s lives.

Our population is ageing. More of us are living longer than ever before, including Australians living with disability. People with a range of conditions can now expect to live decades longer than in previous centuries. Families have become a whole lot diverse than in decades past. Australians increasingly partner multiple times over a lifecourse, so in addition to the rise of the sole parent family, we are experiencing and explosion in family types and complexity. It’s not unusual for children to live in and regularly move between two or more households. 

And of course our labour market has transformed. Teens no longer are pushed to decided “what they want to be” at school, in preparation for selecting one job for life. Workers are required to skill up for work and to continue to develop skills over their working life as jobs change and as they shift industries in response to demand.

These changes all bring challenges for an outdated welfare system. The radical reconfiguring of Australian families, women working en masse, our ageing population, labour market changes and the emergence of long term unemployment all require new approaches to welfare policy and practice. 

The particular challenges around financing supports and care for the vulnerable while ensuring an adequate revenue stream to govern the country well has focussed the minds of Australian government after Australian government on the twin approaches of increasing participation in the workforce and tax reform.

The Government’s announcement earlier this year that Australia’s welfare system would be reviewed provided a welcome opportunity to simplify the system while ensuring that the welfare we provide is effective for its task—providing vital support to some of our most vulnerable people. This is an opportunity that should not be missed.

It is also an opportunity that should not be confused or conflated with the revenue challenge Australia faces. Australia raises less tax than almost any other OECD country. As long as we continue to spend more than we raise, Australia will have an ongoing fiscal problem. The priority of the welfare review must remain focussed on getting the welfare system right.  

The Review’s Interim Report has just been released and contains some positive signs. It offers principles or directions for where reform should head and outlines a number of questions that need to be addressed, inviting submissions.

Alongside its focus on sustainability and efficiency, the report rightly recognises that our welfare system should be about building capacity as well as providing support. The report also recognises the need to ensure that income support works in tandem with social supports and proposes that welfare should be as much about developing and nurturing the capability of individuals, families and communities as it must be about the provision of adequate income.

This means engaging with people holistically. Adequate income support enables people to survive. Working with people to build their skills and capability enables them to thrive. Social services, like those provided by organisations in our network and other charities, are crucial to providing meaningful support.

As the Review progresses in the weeks and months ahead, some key priorities must remain front and centre. The welfare system must provide support that is adequate, it must be simplified and it must be effective. If we can support people to build their capacity and capabilities, if we can nurture our communities, our families and our people, the long-term social (and economic) benefits follow. 

In the months ahead, the Review must take care not to confuse short-term cost-cutting with efficiency. The task that faces us is one of creating the best system of supports that we can. There are few priorities higher than supporting our most vulnerable people and ensuring that they can contribute, belong and be valued. 

Nobel prize winner Joseph Stiglitz shared his wisdom with Australia last night on ABC1’s Lateline, urging the Australian Government to invest more in our people, not less. We could do worse than take his advice.

Lin Hatfield DoddsLin Hatfield Dodds is National Director of UnitingCare Australia. 

Disability image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Lin Hatfield Dodds, welfare, McClure Review, unemployment, disability, Centacare, poverty



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Existing comments

A thorough and most insightful article. Thank you Lin. I think we really need to emulate the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands in our approach to poverty, welfare and the support needed in terms of training (no "Band Aid" training courses, which provide no real skills, from shonky "training providers" , as used to happen in the old CES days, and, I believe, still occurs with the Job Network) to get people out of poverty. I am concerned that the current Federal Coalition Government has a very narrowly monetarist approach to social welfare. That approach, I believe, is doomed to failure.

Edward Fido | 02 July 2014  

This is a wonderful summary of the coming together of the multiple trends which have transformed Australian society and throw the challenges of social care - and community participation - into stark relief. We have had a 'paradigm' societal shift and require a whole new framework of thinking around social 'support'.

Anna Brown | 02 July 2014  

Good article. Recognising the essential dignity and developing the often hidden skills of each and every person is surely a sign of a healthy society. Thank you Lin.

margaret atchison | 02 July 2014  

To support people to build their capacities and capabilities seems the way to go ,Lin. Well run and wisely funded educational institutions can do this as can a wholistic approach to the support provided to the unemployed , homeless and disabled. To walk alongside persons in need is a different approach to crisis intervention and the revolving door syndrome.What is needed are leaders and workers with vision, and the ability to implement and evaluate such programs. It then needs bipartisan support, community education and discussion and sufficient ongoing funds to establish well managed , compassionate ,ongoing programs.

Celia | 02 July 2014  

Excellent article from the captain of the Uniting Church's social welfare/justice flagship.! And what a stunning, mature contrast to the outdated rantings from an equivalent Catholic CEO in yesterday's ES.

john frawley | 02 July 2014  

An encouraging and inspiring piece. Thank you Lin Hatfield Dodds. It's encouraging to know that such informed and well crafted submissions will be put to the Review when so much of what the Government says seems to be substituting ideology for a knowledge of the actual lives of people in need and an intelligent and compassionate response to them. Joe Hockey is so complacent in believing that everyone in need of a visit to the doctor can afford the packet of cigarettes or the couple of middies that are so easy for him to buy. And Kevin Andrews hasn't even tumbled to the fact that an unemployed young person with no income support for six months will not be able to afford to travel to all those job interviews he puts so much faith in. He also needs to know a lot more about the way episodic mental illness affect the capacity of afflicted people to find and keep scarce jobs. Thank God for Uniting Care Australia, Vinnies, The Wesley Mission and other like bodies that take the needs of people more seriously than many politicians for whom the whole game is about electoral success.

Joe Castley | 02 July 2014  

If only! When I sought to return to the workforce after thirteen years as a full time mother, I attended more than 50 interviews. In those days prospective employers only required a resume - say two or three pages. Today job applicants are being asked for extremely full resumes, My last was approximately eight or nine pages, plus copies of all certificates. They ask for multiple copies depending on how many are likely to be on the selection panel. How can someone who has had no income for six months afford to apply for any job? Unless of course they have parents who can afford to support them for that amount of time. Thank you Lin for an excellent article.

Margaret McDonald | 02 July 2014  

Indeed an excellent article, however should not have been used by john frawley as a means of having a crack at John Falzon's hard hitting and equally excellent article in yesterday's ES. Just different way of saying the same thing and both are equally valid.

JR | 02 July 2014  

Yes. We so need to be careful that women having paid work doesn't make them as ignorant of the style of dependence of the unwaged as the men of a previous era. It seems to me that ignorance, not of statistical records, but of a certain life experience is our decision-making challenge.

helen cantwell | 05 July 2014  

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