Vulnerable people must be at the heart of welfare reforms



There is much to like in Social Service Minister Christian Porter's presentation of proposed reforms to the welfare system. But it remains unclear what their primary goal is.

Mother and childPorter and his ground troops in The Australian argue that, if unaddressed, the costs of welfare will be unsustainable. The proposed reforms will solicit programs aimed at weaning people from welfare. Their effectiveness will be rigorously evaluated. The principle of mutual obligation will require those who receive payments to apply regularly for work, participate in educational programs etc. This will provide them with an incentive to find work. Supporters of the reform herald a change of perspective that will see welfare through the prism of values, not of fairness.

There is much to welcome in these ideals. Who could fail to be delighted if people are helped to support themselves, if the claimed success of programs is supported by evidence, people take responsibility for their lives, and the welfare bill is reduced as people no longer need support?

The question left hanging, however, is what drives these changes. Is the human welfare of our fellow Australians the goal towards which the budgetary changes are a means? Or are budgetary savings the goal to which the treatment of our fellow Australians will be a means? The shape of change and its effects on people will depend on the answer to this question.

The advocacy for the changes suggests that saving money, not people, is their main object. The urgency for change derives from the massive welfare bill projected into the future. By far the largest item in it is pensions. Yet in arguing for change its supporters speak only of young people and carers. And even there the projections do not take notice of the changes of benefit categories.

This dissimulation has invited the familiar denigration of vulnerable groups. Independently, Porter has announced that Newstart will not be increased, and the new Treasury plan has declared that it will focus only on fiscal repair and not on wellbeing. All this suggests that the planned welfare changes may be the old neo-liberal wolf abed in a frilly ethical bonnet.

But let us suppose that the reform is guided by the human welfare of vulnerable people. What are the conditions necessary for it to work?

First, the government must accept its responsibility to ensure that the most vulnerable in society can live decently. That is both the index of a decent society and a necessary condition for people to participate in the economy. No changes to welfare can compromise that responsibility, nor can mutual obligation justify cutting benefits to people who are incapable of meeting responsibilities thrust on them.


"If the reform of the welfare program is to be defended on the grounds of values or morality, these considerations cannot be opposed to fairness. Any social policy must serve the good of the whole community."


Second, the government must ensure that work is available to people who seek it. When defining work, too, it cannot confine it to work for payment. People who stay at home to care for disabled parents or children are engaged in work that they will often complete more effectively and economically than paid carers. They should be rewarded, not penalised, for not seeking work less beneficial for society.

Third, the evidence determinative of welfare policy must not be confined to what can be statistically measured. The provision of welfare must correspond to human needs and behaviour. A central impediment faced by vulnerable people in contributing to society is lack of self-esteem. This often underlies the lack of skills and self-confidence needed to find and keep work. It is, however, difficult to measure and the programs that might help people build it work slowly and intangibly. The evidence for their success will necessarily be in part subjective. It is certain, though, that when people are demonised as slackers, have insufficient income to live decently, and lose what they have for the inability to compete tasks that are beyond them, they will lose what self-esteem they have.

Fourth, the evidence used to evaluate success must track the human path of people who move from and into receiving welfare benefits. In particular, the lives of people who lose their benefits must be followed, and any costs incurred through their treatment for their mental and physical health, their encounters with the justice system and jails set against the money saved within the welfare system.

Finally, if the reform of the welfare program is to be defended on the grounds of values or morality, these considerations cannot be opposed to fairness. Any social policy must serve the good of the whole community and particularly meet the needs of the most vulnerable. But if it is an expression of an economic framework that enriches the already wealthy by further punishing the struggling, no moral veneer will protect it from popular contempt and prevent further alienation from politics.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Viewminder via Flick

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, welfare, Christian Porter



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Existing comments

I really appreciate Andrew's focus questioning the primary motive for the proposed changes to welfare. Like Andrew I believe that the well being of our most vulnerable citizens should be the main concern. I was extremely disappointed to read that Minister Porter has spoken against increasing the Newstart unemployment benefit. It is totally unfair that the unemployed are forced to try and live off just $264.35 a week. Basic living costs can't be covered on this inadequate payment. The Government needs also to focus on the creation of meaningful, properly paid employment. The majority of unemployed people desperately want work but the sad reality is that there simply aren't enough work opportunities in our society at present. I fear that the current approach by Government is to once again demonize the unemployed rather than tackle the systemic problem of unemployment itself.
robert van zetten | 29 September 2016

To describe saving money as an end in itself does not, in my view, fairly represent what most advocates of cost-cutting think. They see cost-cutting as protecting the health of the economy and thereby the wellbeing of people, including the most vulnerable. The fact is that government budgets are not bottomless pits - there are many worthwhile purposes to which governments can allocate resources, but they cannot all be funded and choices have to be made. Be that as it may, Andrew Hamilton is right to say that the wellbeing of the disadvantaged must be the primary focus of reforms in social policy. If that means higher levels of social spending and/or cutbacks in other programs - or, heaven forbid, the removal of tax rorts for the well-off - so be it.
RPS | 29 September 2016

It seems to me I have heard all this before. There is nothing more demoralizing than to attend job interview (if you can get an interview) after job interview. I often felt that I was just there to make up a number. If suitable jobs don't exist, there is no point in building up a person's confidence only to have it destroyed. And how does this fall in line with the number of people who work well over thier paid hours just to keep up with the workload. Something much more basic is the true problem.
Margaret McDonald | 29 September 2016

A Modern parable: A young man ,let's call him "John", was eager to get a job after suffering an illness. He preferred work to welfare .He accepted the only job available which was in the prison system. He put in 10 hour days to keep up to the un thankful , never ending ,chaotic demands. He was poorly paid with little job satisfaction. He was at the lowest rung of a tight fisted government department with no possibility of an improvement in wages or promotion . Not being on welfare John received no rental ,heating or medical assistance. He survived by eating very little,( one small meal a day) enduring toothache, poor eyesight and sitting home watching TV. unable to enter into society on his limited income and exhausted from worry and work. Politicians and those who had never known a "John "decried "dole bludgers" and turned a blind eye to the working poor . They set out to tighten welfare......... An article in the newspaper reported "John's"tragic death. One person , a former teacher when he was a bright 12 year old wept . She would miss the phone calls and ,"John's thanks for the occasional chicken casseroles. And she wondered at what might have been........
Celia | 29 September 2016

I have followed the four Boyer lectures - passionate talks on the links between poverty and health across the world. There is constant reference to the task for governments to undertake, as well as how others can initiate action. The Boyer lectures this year are based on social justice, and are available on ABC RN web pages.
John O'Kelly | 29 September 2016

What a crazy world we inhabit where some work 70 hour weeks to the detriment of their health and relationships while others cannot get any work to the detriment of their health and self esteem through lack of income and frustration in job seeking. The government urges those of retirement age to continue to work so that there exist fewer job opportunities for younger people to gain worthwhile employment. What a mess!
Ernest Azzopardi | 30 September 2016

The current welfare system is an abomination. Despite what those in the land of rainbows and unicorns believe, there are vast swathes of the benefit receiving population who choose not to work. Nobody disputes the fact that we should support those with mental or physical infirmity, but a hair shirt approach is far overdue for the fourth and fifth generation Australians who have never known a days work. 'We shall toil every day of our lives' - a spiritual and moral fact. The church, considering what Jesus taught, is on dubious ground when it begins to incorporate socialism into its social teaching. When Jesus spoke of the poor, he did not define poverty in terms of US dollars per month. We are all given brains to determine who is worthy of charity and who is not. We do not need dogma! In central Queensland there are towns who have to import labour from the pacific islands, because dysfunctional social policy does not demand that the long term unemployed in the major centre two hours away, travel there to work. Green leafy Catholics with left wing proclivities need to seriously examine their positions in this regard.
Russ | 30 September 2016

Russ: it may be as you say in Central Queensland. it is not so in the coastal cities where it is not all green and leafy. Re 4th and 5th generation Australians: maybe they feel they are entitled to a long rest after all the work done and little rewarded in some cases by the 3 or 4 generations preceding them and maybe those generations would even be happy to bequeath it to them? and Celia: what comes after those...? what if this "bright 12 year old" had lived in a land where his capacity was recognised and an adequate education and career path was supported? It must hurt so much for a teacher to see that waste, again and again. What keeps you going?
Jillian | 05 October 2016


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