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Forcing people to do the right thing


Basics CardWelfare recipients should spend their payments on food and clothing, and not on drugs and alcohol.

Indeed few welfare recipients with drug and alcohol addictions would themselves argue against this. The question is how the government should go about persuading them to make the most appropriate use of their payments.

It can focus its efforts on either force or reason.

Forced income management is the easy option. It is effective in ensuring the payments are used for the daily necessities of life.

A Senate report released earlier this month endorsed plans to expand income management from Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory to selected welfare recipients across the country.

But the cost to human dignity makes income management counter-productive. Any disadvantaged person robbed of their dignity will find it almost impossible to flourish as a member of society.

Compulsory income management is supported by government bureaucrats, who have no contact with the recipients themselves. They can see that it makes economic sense, at least in the short term.

Such draconian measures are strongly opposed by charities and welfare groups, which have regular face to face dealings with the recipients and can see most clearly what allows welfare recipients to overcome their difficulties.

St Vincent de Paul National CEO John Falzon said: 'This Inquiry heard evidence from all over Australia. The evidence overwhelmingly showed that income management can be a useful tool when it is voluntary and backed up with supports and services. It also showed that compulsory income management is degrading and stigmatising.'

St Vincent de Paul and similar organisations reject the view that people who are doing it tough need to be set apart and treated as though they are dysfunctional. People who are treated as dysfunctional for a sustained period of time invariably become dysfunctional.

It is much better if the government can show them how to beat drug and alcohol addiction and not remove their ability to take responsible decisions towards this end.

Compulsory income management assumes that some welfare recipients are unable to make rational decisions that take into account the long-term consequences of their actions. The same might be said for some governments.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: welfare payments, john falzon, compulsory income management, human dignity, St Vincent de Paul



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Existing comments

'People who are treated as dysfunctional for a sustained period of time invariably become dysfunctional,' writes Michael. Exactly. The worst excesses of colonial and Commonwealth governance against Indigenous Australians - 'divide imperium', the concept of terra nullius, outre exploitation of individuals and tokenism, outright genocide and cultural genocide, the long-term refusal to count Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders as Australian citizens, the Stolen Generations, the intransigency over land rights and the inexplicable failure to implement the deaths in custody recommendations - all come down to the paternalism with which our governments and even some of our NGOs and churches still regard Indigenous Australians. The outcome of the ongoing battle to deliver compulsary income management en masse to Australians will determine if Aussies in general will put up with the paternalism with which we still treat our Indigenous citizens.

Barry Gittins | 22 March 2010  

The question of the degree to which social corrective policies of any kind should be administered universally or compulsorily always highlights the difficult balance between our regard for individual dignity and freedom and our realisation that the common good (and subsidiary individual good) is often - given human behaviour - achieved only through broad, collective action or regulation which inevitably overrides some individual preference. I trust however that we can reflect, reading this editorial, that all of us are the beneficiaries in some form or another of the common wealth (welfare) established through taxes, and that accordingly, to the extent that we are all welfare recipients, we ought not speak of or treat those receiving particular forms of that welfare as different or inferior classes. As I apprehend the tendency is to do.

Stephen Kellett | 22 March 2010  

Great piece Michael!

We often get the well rehearsed govt. slogans such as "..for the benefit of the most vulnerable...".

What we hardly hear, is the impact of those decisions which affect certain, (often) almost powerless groups in the community.

Beyond the dangerous grounds of generalising on the poor or those in need, how does actually taking away responsibility, highlight or encourage it?!

Steve Gumerungi Hodder | 22 March 2010  

I fully agree. What is one of the worst things about this proposal is that it purports to be justified by a spurious 'consultation' with the communities affected in the NT. The only hard evidence as to this consultation, relating to 4 separate communities is that it is a sham. Recognising also that income protection relating only to the Aboriginal community would contravene the Racial Discrimination Act which it proposes to reintroduce, the Government now proposes that it extend to selected portions of the whole community. This is either a thinly disguised ruse to preserve the character and spirit of the Howard Intervention or it is a radical extension of the power of Government to intervene in the lives of welfare recipients generally.

Alastair Nicholson | 22 March 2010  

Great piece Michael!

We often get the well rehearsed govt. slogans such as "..for the benefit of the most vulnerable...".

What we hardly hear, is the impact of those decisions which affect certain, (often) almost powerless groups in the community.

Beyond the dangerous grounds of generalising on the poor or those in need, how does actually taking away responsibility, highlight or encourage it?!

Steve Gumerungi Hodder | 22 March 2010  

Michael - you seem very confident in your assertion that "Compulsory income management is supported by governmnent bureaucrats." Really? Are you privy to the cabinet-in-confidence advice that the public service provides to the government on these matters? Or do you just assume that government decisions must reflect the advice of their bureaucrats. You slander either public servants or cabinet-ministers by that implication. Perhaps in the future you could think twice before you decide to impugn the motives of public service so blithely.

Felix Farrier | 22 March 2010  

Fine not to make life easier but rather not to make it more difficult. No society is perfect. No society can give everyone a job. No government can guarantee they can make everyone to have reasonable income.

Whatever such thing 'Compulsory income management' is going to do - it seems the politicians have run out of generosity.

There are people out there who need guidance, information and different incentives - not necessarily money - but they must be given such helps before too late.

There are information written in different formats on all sort of papers but the vital information and helps are missing - that is the need of each individual in unique condition.

People who don't have anything to change their existing bad interests/habits to better interests/habits/ goals can no way change these things by themselves. To change from a bad condition to a better condition needs everything. To improve or step the next step in life is universally not that simple to the people who endure at very bottom of the society.

Money gives support to survive or buy staffs but shouldn't governments also start talking about psychological support/entertainment and the support toward a way out? To start cracking the eggshell that contains these people should be a priority. The need to give enthusiasm and once they have it, they should be supported until they get to the other side of the river - rather not let them swim against the impossible current.

AZURE | 22 March 2010  

I suggest that if we re-phrase the last sentence we can support selective compulsory income management: '..assumes that some people are not in the habit of taking into account the long-term consequences..' (remove 'unable').
Sometimes you have to force change in behaviour to force change in attitude and consequences. A prime example of this is enforcement of drink-driving laws. Most people did not change behaviour until forced to, and now people generally behave and have attitudes supporting limits on drinking alcohol and driving.
With this approach we can compulsorily manage some incomes and back it with support and services, ultimately changing behaviour.

John Garrett | 29 March 2010  

Everyone who pays taxes is subject to some form of compulsory income management. Taxation is not voluntary, but most agree that it is part of the social contract and is in some way beneficial; even if it lessens our autonomy and our economic choices, we gladly sacrifice these. We do not generally feel demeaned to be compelled in this way because no group is singled out and we believe all will benefit in some measure. All Australians arguably do receive some benefit from the government's use of tazpayer dollars. However, the government's involvement in our lives does not generally involve the micro-management of individual spending decisions, except for prohibitions on purchases of illegal items. A precedent such as this attaching to one group could easily become more widespread--the principle applying to all Australian families--what if it became compulsory to use family allowance/assistance payments only for the purhcase of certain prescribed food items in order to prevent/fight childhood obesity? Failure to comply would mean loss of benefit. Would universality make such a compulsory program acceptable?

Deb | 19 April 2010  

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