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'They think we're rubbish': Life on welfare in Australia



Who Cares? Life on Welfare in Australia, Eve Vincent, 2023, Melbourne University Press.


'As unemployment rose in the 1970s, a new pejorative colloquialism emerged in Australia: "dole bludger". "Bludger" was originally a nineteenth-century word for a sex worker’s pimp, who carried a bludgeon. The pimp or bludger lived comfortably off the sex worker’s labour. In the 1970s, "dole bludgers" were increasingly cast as living off the hard work of the taxpayer, even compelling the taxpayer to keep working to keep society going and provide for the indolent poor. For historian Verity Archer, who traces this genealogy, the salient cultural distinction in Australia within debates about welfare since this time is not so much between the categories of deserving and undeserving poor as between welfare recipient and taxpayer. The slur of "bludger" remains in use today.' -Eve Vincent

Recently, Michele Bullock, the Reserve Bank’s Deputy Governor, made the remarkable assertion that: ‘If unemployment remains too low for too long, inflation expectations will rise, which will make it that much harder for the monetary authorities to bring inflation back down.’ She is by no means alone. Former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers called for five years at six per cent unemployment or one year at 10 per cent unemployment, and US Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell said his goal is ‘to get wages down’.  

As with the chronic use of interest rate rises and wage suppression, the grotesque idea of a ‘desirable’ level of unemployment, more than a blunt tool that putatively protects wealth, is a sharp weapon plunged into the lives of working class people. It is clear that the bludgeon is being wielded against, not by, the people who are being made to pay the price for the ballooning and buttressing of profits — noting that even the IMF acknowledges that we are witnessing what economist Isabella Weber identifies as ‘sellers’ inflation’, whereby ‘large corporations with market power have used supply problems as an opportunity to increase prices and scoop windfall profits’.

And yet we still entertain the dominant fixation on those who are not in paid work, or not enough paid work, as being the ‘bludgers’ who are supposedly feeding off the rest of us.

The construct of the ‘welfare recipient’ is code for the purported laziness of the person who ‘leans on the rest of us’. Indeed, the language of ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’ was memorably introduced by former treasurer Joe Hockey in 2014 around the time of his infamously vicious budget. It was a frame for cutting both social expenditure and taxes, suggesting that those who do the ‘heavy lifting’ in the economy (namely those with the highest incomes) should not be penalised or discouraged from their entrepreneurial activity by higher taxation, while those who do the ‘leaning’ should indeed be penalised and discouraged from living off the public purse.

This discourse, imported from the United States, where its development was roughly coterminous with the emergence of neoliberalism, was promoted by Lawrence Mead and others. It was a means of further disempowering people deemed surplus to the needs of capital and who should therefore, according to this offensive logic, be punished rather than protected.


'Anthropologist Dr Eve Vincent has written a book that deserves to be closely read as a model rejoinder to this top-down practice of social policy. Dr Vincent engages in neither proscription nor prescription. On the contrary, this excellent book is a primer in the art of listening.'


Typical of this ideological posturing is the following assertion, with its abhorrent demonisations on the basis of gender and class, by Michael Novak and others in The New Consensus on Family and Welfare: a Community of Self-reliance, published by the American Enterprise Institute in 1987: ‘What is distinctive about behavioural dependency is its moral or attitudinal component, manifest in an inability to cope on the part of many able-bodied adults. Two of its major causes are, on the one hand, female-headed households and, on the other, nonwork.’ 

Indian writer Arundhati Roy famously said, ‘There’s no such thing as the voiceless, only the deliberately silenced and the preferably unheard’. Social policy, especially in the period of neoliberal capitalism, is usually crafted in splendid isolation from the people who are marked for subjection to its impact. ParentsNext and the cashless debit card, both of which have been axed by the current federal government (with the important, albeit deeply disappointing, caveat that other forms of compulsory income management continue to be implemented) are both examples of this.

It is salutary to remember the context in which Bismark introduced seemingly benign, even welcome, welfare policies in 1883, hot on the heels of his proscription of the democratic socialist activities of working people in Germany in 1878. It was used as an attempted means of dampening socialist agitation and silencing worker-led analysis of the conditions of capitalism towards the close of the 19th century. 

In Who Cares? Life on Welfare in Australia, Macquarie University anthropologist Dr Eve Vincent has written a book that deserves to be closely read as a model rejoinder to this top-down practice of social policy. Dr Vincent engages in neither proscription nor prescription. On the contrary, this excellent book is a primer in the art of listening. Let’s listen with her for a moment:


Stacey is an aged-care worker. When I interviewed her, she was also studying online and raising young children alone. The moment she used the [cashless debit] card to make a purchase, she felt immediately inveigled as — and reduced to — someone ‘on Centrelink’. The kind of person about whom others, she worried, might be thinking ‘should you really be out at the bakery having lunch?’

Some settings ‘especially’ produced this fear of scrutiny and judgement. Like the op shop. ‘I really feel it there,’ Stacey told me.

I said, ‘I wonder why you feel it there?’

She replied, ‘I don’t know … because they’re elder people and they’re very well respected in the community … It makes me feel like I’m a drug user or something like that, because I’m on the card. Where it’s not the case at all! So that’s why I think it’s sort of stereotyped there that if you're on the card you’re …’ Stacey left the silence for me to fill in.

I met up with Brian on the beach … Brian told me passionately, ‘I’ve never been a bludger, but I’ve been tarred’. Starting physical work alongside his dad as a teenager had worn out his body early. He was defensive about not working in his mid-fifties but also reasoned, ‘I’ve done my time’. It was Brian who summed up the thought Stacey left unspoken: ‘They think we’re rubbish.’


This is not the kind of listening typified by the tick-a-box consultation we have come to associate with governments who go in search of evidence to justify an ideologically motivated policy, then presenting as evidence-based policy what is in actuality policy-based evidence. Rather, it is a profoundly respectful, relational, kind of listening. It is a listening that, as per the above extract, makes space for the unspoken and the unspeakable as well as for what many would regard as the preferably unhearable. It is, in short, a political listening, a listening that seeks out the structures and stories, sometimes in whispers and fragments, that loosen up the elements of dense power and show, even tentatively, the potential paths towards its dispersal. 

For it is concentrated power, and hence control, that lies at the core of the explicitly paternalistic and infantilising policies such as ParentsNext and the various iterations of compulsory income management. More than this though, it is power that lies at the core of the practice of social policy itself, except when it is the fruit of, and aligns with, the analysis and agitation of the people it will impact.

In Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? theorist Judith Butler makes the terrifying (because true) claim that certain populations are deemed ‘lose-able’:


precisely because they are cast as threats to human life as we know it rather than as living populations in need of protection from illegitimate state violence, famine, or pandemics. Consequently, when such lives are lost they are not grievable, since, in the twisted logic that rationalises their death, the loss of such populations is deemed necessary to protect the lives of ‘the living’. 


This is what I think of when faced with the fact that we are educated to accept the ‘necessary’ sacrifice that some of us are expected to make for the sake of the rest of us, rendering their lives deliberately ‘losable’, expendable, ungrievable.  

Poet Audre Lorde wrote that ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ To dismantle the power structures that residualise and devalorise people on the basis of class, gender, culture, disability, sexuality, age or any other means of establishing a violent supremacy over people, means using tools that spring from the thick of the struggle for liberation rather than those forged in the same place where the chains are made. It means making the connections between so-called economic imperatives and rarely called-out ideological manoeuvres. Vincent does this with incredible deftness and down-to-earthness, telling, for example, the stories of dispossession of First Nations People and the colonisers’ willful destruction of First Nations economic, social, cultural, political and spiritual systems, and how this trajectory of violent disempowerment is both elided and channelled into paternalistic policies such as the cashless debit card.

Dr Vincent makes the reader see the connections that are quite deliberately rendered invisible in the dominant discourse. Often the results are stunning, such being the case, for example, with the connection she makes between the fear and unpredictability of being subjected to a paternalistic regime such as ParentsNext, with the systematic precarity that has become a hallmark of the neoliberal labour market. Vincent points out that what might just look like shoddiness actually reflects something deeper and more alarming: she employs the insight of sociologist Lisa Adkins that conditional welfare states command recipients to ‘constantly adapt to unpredictability’, thereby forming a structural continuity with the increasingly precarious, casualised, insecure and unpredictable labour market.

In a similar vein, Vincent notes the strong sense that people have of being constantly under surveillance, constantly on the cusp of being uncovered as the morally deficient people they are often deliberately made to feel they are. As Ayesha, a ParentsNext participant explained: ‘It sometimes felt like a game of, you know, they are trying to catch me doing something wrong.’ Another participant, Trish, puts it more bluntly: ‘I feel like I have a target on my back.’

All of this bespeaks the dialectical relationship between power and care. Vincent consistently makes the point that the work of caring is delegitimised by a power structure that relegates people and places to residualisation if they are deemed to be surplus to the logic of the market. Commenting on the gender dynamics of the contemporary welfare state, apropos specifically of ParentsNext, but also more broadly, Vincent writes:


Caring is delegitimised as inactivity, while the parents of infants are recast as essentially ‘unemployed’. Like other unemployed persons, they are subject to chaotic and arbitrary governance of their circumstances. In the process, the role of parenting and the work it involves is erased and devalued. 


But, in one of those cruel twists so typical of the twin machinations of capital and patriarchy, ‘as neoliberal priorities stripped funding from social infrastructure, family members were expected to assume care of those in need. And being cared for in the community [as pointed out by Alecia Simmonds] “has almost always meant care by women”.’

As theorist Wendy Brown explains, the neoliberal dismantling of public infrastructure translates into:


gender subordination … [being] both intensified and fundamentally altered. The intensification occurs through the shrinking, privatisation, and/or dismantling of public infrastructure supporting families, children, and retirees. Such infrastructure includes, but is not limited to affordable, quality early childhood and afterschool programs, summer camps, physical and mental health care, education, public transportation, neighbourhood parks and recreation centres, public pensions, senior centres, and social security. When these public provisions are eliminated or privatised, the work and/or the cost of supplying them is returned to individuals, disproportionately to women.


During the period of enclosures in England, where common land was fenced off and effectively privatised, a marvellous anonymous poem emerged, usually dated to the 17th century. It begins:


The law locks up the man or woman

Who steals the goose from off the common

But leaves the greater villain loose

Who steals the common from under the goose.


This theft of the commons is something that we understand very clearly in the neoliberal era. It is not new to this era. First Nations Peoples continue to be literally locked up as a result of violent dispossession, and, as Brown has pointed out above, this theft of the commons is also deeply gendered in its impact.

As Vincent poignantly reminds us: ‘We were all once vulnerable and will be again.’ One of the things we have in common is that we all need help from each other. Judith Butler identifies this as the experience of precariousness, the reality that our lives are ‘always in some ways in the hands of the other’. Rather than being stigmatising, this is central to our humanity. We are social beings and we should never be ashamed of needing help from each other. Rather than being an alienating experience, the help we give and receive as social beings should be seen as something that binds us together. At best it can even produce a powerful sense of solidarity and hope.

It is also the reason we need to think and act collectively. The way our economy is currently structured gives rise to a certain false way of thinking about how our lives are structured, making us feel like the need for help is a weakness, a flaw. We are made to feel like if we can’t stand alone then we can’t really stand at all. Billionaires are presented to us as the pinnacles of strength and virtue, while working class people, especially those on low-pay, those in insecure work and those who are not in paid work, are presented as being deeply flawed. What is missing in this false picture is the fact that poverty, inequality and insecurity are not a reflection of poor individual choices; they are a reflection of the deliberately manufactured precarity, which, unlike precariousness is, in Butler’s formulation, ‘a politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence and death’.

The Covid pandemic drove home for all of us that we need each other and need to be able to depend on each other for help. We learned that we needed a public health system that would vaccinate us regardless of our income or status in the economy. We learned that appropriate housing was crucial for everyone, and that this didn’t just mean a roof over our heads but also safety, security, time to heal and space to live. We also learned the value of a robust and non-stigmatising social security system.

Our job is to celebrate our common precariousness while fighting and eliminating the manufactured precarity that is imposed on us. All forms of precarity happen by design, from the precarity experienced by First Nations people that comes with the violence of colonisation to the precarity experienced by women that comes with the violence of patriarchy.

 It is time to not only stop the enclosures — it is time to take the commons back. We need to challenge the dominant story that presents this theft of the commons not as theft but as the fruit of hard work, entrepreneurialism and aspiration. And we urgently need to reimagine society as a space in which the work of caring is deeply valued and the role of the state is reconfigured not as an instrument of surveillance, control and punishment in the interests of capital, patriarchy and colonisation, but as a collective means of meeting our need for interdependence and our yearning for liberation. 




Dr John Falzon is Senior Fellow, Inequality and Social Justice at Per Capita. He was national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society from 2006 to 2018. He is a member of the Australian Services Union. He is the author of  We’ve Got Your Back: Building a Framework that Protects us from Precarity.

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Topic tags: John Falzon, Jobseeker, Centrelink, Employment, Neoliberalism, Poverty, Welfare



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Existing comments

Deeply insightful writing John. Thank you very much.

And thank you also for highlighting Dr Eve Vincent's powerful new book in which she listens so movingly to the thoughts and feelings of those living on welfare.

I agree totally with you too that our society urgently needs to recognise and reward the incredibly important work of caring. Many good Australians do this work on a daily basis and receive little if any recognition or recompense.

Robert Van Zetten | 06 July 2023  

John we take up collections for the homeless at our church. Clothes and money for St V de P. It is estimated that there are 300,000 homeless folk in Qld.
This year's enormous Qld budget surplus of over $15bn is from coal. A substance the Labor party purports to despise. (Even though new technology can convert coal to power without the need for combustion and a 2% CO2 emission).

Our current politicians also despise the homeless and pay them no heed because they don't vote. Nine years ago it was predicted that "Economic modelling by Productivity Commission predicts 27,430 jobs to be lost in Victoria and 10,670 in South Australia." That proved true. 44% of those on welfare in Townsville are Aboriginal and Islander ethnicity. (No jobs again).
Brisbane's 2032 Olympic Games will cost taxpayers $7.1 billion over the next decade, the Queensland Budget papers show. The cost, to be split between the federal and Queensland governments, includes $2.7 billion to redevelop the Gabba as the main Olympic stadium.
Some things are infinitely more important than a few hundred thousand homeless on welfare.

Francis Armstrong | 07 July 2023  

Wow! Thanks John, that’s a powerful article.

Frank S | 07 July 2023  

Rerum Novarum stated back in 1891:
"First of all, there is no intermediary more powerful than religion (whereof the Church is the interpreter and guardian) in drawing the rich and the working class together, by reminding each of its duties to the other, and especially of the obligations of justice."
But, has this happened?
Helder Camara said:
"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist."
"They ", as far as I know, included the institutional church.
Is it time to re-start a discussion on a Universal Basic Income in place of the administrative welfare nightmare that allows things like robo-debt to happen?

Joseph Fernandez | 08 July 2023  
Show Responses

I agree completely with you Joseph. It is time to discuss and run pilots of Universal Basic Income in Australia.
Other pilots across the world have shown again and again the immense benefits basic income provide.

Introducing basic income is an important way of ensuring that every Australian is able to live above the poverty line.

No political party or person has been able to show a better way of making sure everyone has enough to live.

Robert Van Zetten | 10 July 2023  

If we are not extremely careful, we risk revisiting the worst excesses of the 18th and 19th Centuries, where the majority of people in the West lived in appalling conditions. Much of the rhetoric against the poor is recycled from this era. The current Government of this country and the Opposition are not doing much to help by sponsoring massive immigration without adequate housing or social services for the current population. 'Bread and circuses', as in the Olympics for Brisbane, do nothing to address this situation. We need real leaders with a social conscience who work to build a cohesive society. Currently we do not appear to have them.

Edward Fido | 10 July 2023  

A piece of dialogue in a TV show many years ago said words to the effect that in science, asking an impertinent question can lead to a pertinent answer.

Is it the same in moral philosophy? Is there a same-ness of sorts between the indifference of powerful officials to the impact of "Robodebt" on social security recipients and kicking a handcuffed Afghani subsistence farmer off a cliff? For a policy similar to "Robodebt", look into the British Post Office Horizon IT system scandal and its impact on small business franchisees running local post offices.

What is a policy but a series of one-off behaviours connected through a theme?

s martin | 11 July 2023  

Thank you John for this very powerful article about how those in power treat those who are welfare recipients.

In the 1970s when Malcolm Fraser was Australian PM and was telling young unemployed people that they were dole bludgers, I was teaching in a state high school in a working class district.

Young people who applied for scores of jobs were unsuccessful, had their hearts broken and harboured negative feelings about themselves. Some became very depressed and some suicided.

The fact that these young people could not get work was because there were not enough jobs to go around.
However, this did not stop politically inept and compassionless adults from mindlessly mouthing off the nasty propaganda - often directing it at the victims of what has become a very harsh neoliberal economic system.

All too often, we hear people who have fantastic wealth treating the unemployed and others who need financial assistance as lacking a work ethic. However, blaming the victims for the economic problems that exist in society does not change anything for the better.

I agree that the pandemic should teach us that we all need to work together to care for each other. However, we should also be aware many of the mega wealthy have had their wealth mightily increased while there are even more in dire need.

We need a positive and effective approach to economic planning that ensures that no-one is forced to live in poverty. This means putting the needs of people first - not planning for unemployment because this is supposed to be good for the economy!

A good start would be for governments have a fair tax system - not one that allows the mega wealthy pay minimal or no tax and bludge on the rest of society. And not involving us in the super expensive and unnecessary AUKUS agreement would be another.

We need compassion and commonsense and less pandering to the wealthy and powerful.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 11 July 2023  

Ross Gittins is the most insightful newspaper columnist of any I read.
Today's column should be essential reading for everyone.
The penultimate column:

"There are many reasons I am proud to be an Australian. But one thing that makes me ashamed is the way our politicians seek popularity by pandering to the worst side of Australian character: our tendency to scapegoat those less fortunate than ourselves, particularly boat people and the jobless. "

So, getting back to the line from Rerum Novarum that I quoted above in my earlier comment, where has the Australian church leadership been?
Missing in action for all the great moral challenges of our times: climate change, mandatory detention of asylum seekers, invasions of other countries. - in Rerum Novarum's language "the obligations of justice."

Joseph Fernandez | 12 July 2023  

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