Youth allowance: an attack on young gays and lesbians
By Sarah Lantz
The youth allowance, introduced on July 1, was sold by the federal government as "more flexible" and "simpler". In fact, it is yet another attempt to regulate, normalise and circumscribe the "deviant".
The tight eligibility criteria are based on prescribing and defining moral norms to which young people are forced to conform. They include an age of "independence" (21 for young unemployed and 25 for full-time students), marital status (de facto couples in a relationship of at least 12 months qualify as a "youth allowance couple", but same-sex relationships do not), and an activity test (the unemployed are required to perform a range of activities to receive the payment).
The strategy being enacted through the allowance is to push the responsibility for the welfare and income support of young people back on to individual families. This reduces public expenditure and keeps young people dependent on their family unit for longer than they would otherwise be.
This dependent relationship is central to the maintenance of "traditional family values" — as John Howard put it in 1996, "stable and united, functioning families represent the most effective welfare system that any nation can devise".
This policy presumes that all young people can call on the family for support, and that all families have equal financial capacity to provide it.
Yet the family is the principal source of income for only 22% of students aged 19-20 and 26.5% aged 21-24. Sixty-eight per cent of 20-year-olds receive no income from their parents. Furthermore, recent studies have revealed that parents are less likely to support their daughters than their sons in accessing higher education, on the basis that females' potential graduate earnings are generally lower.
Compulsory financial dependence on the family also inhibits students' and other young people's ability to come out as lesbian or gay. In a focus group of young lesbian students at RMIT this month, one participant said, "When I came out, my parents told me I had a mental illness and it was a great sin. I had to have therapy and when it didn't work they threw me out of the house and didn't sign my youth allowance form to allow me to get homeless benefits."
Another lesbian student described the stigma and isolation she faced from her family: "The family is the building block of homophobia. It's the first place as a lesbian I was bullied by my brother and where my parents did nothing."
These examples are consistent with the findings of the 1997 Here for Life — Youth Sexuality Project, which investigated the relationship between young people and the family. It revealed that 80% of the 1500 gay and lesbian adolescents involved had not told their parents of their same-sex attraction.
Increasing numbers of young people, whether "out" or not, are getting married to obtain government income support. Once again, they are having to deny or conceal their real sexuality.
An amendment to the youth allowance legislation to have same-sex couples recognised under the de facto provision was sought by the WA Greens. Senator Dee Margetts said: "There is no reason at all to actually single out a group of people and say, 'You've satisfied all the other criteria except that you're a couple of the same sex'."
The ALP, independent Brian Harradine and the government refused to support the amendment. Labor's Senator Belinda Neal responded to Margetts: "The whole Social Security Act does not provide for same-sex couples. To change it for one small splinter out of the whole Social Security Act would really make for an absurd situation."
The urgent need to legitimate same-sex relationships has been revealed by numerous studies which document extensive harassment, abuse and violence faced by gay and lesbian students. Of the 8400 students surveyed by the Safe Schools Anti-Violence Project in 1996, 34% had been harassed because of their sexual orientation, 25% to 40% had attempted suicide, 65% to 85% had seriously considered suicide, and 75% said they felt unsafe at school.
In its policy document Strengthening Families, the government states it is unacceptable that this country, with its "wealth and opportunities, has one of the highest youth suicide rates in the western world".
This rhetoric directly contradicts the government's practice: its "traditional family values" austerity drive is exacerbating the fact, revealed by the July 1997 Victorian Suicide Prevention Task Force report, that gays and lesbians are a high-risk group.
Yet in both Strengthening Families and The Victorian Government Response to the Suicide Prevention Task Force Report, no mention is made of sexuality. Beneath this silence is a default position which defines heterosexuality and the family unit as "natural" and "normal", to which all should conform — and if you can't or won't, you don't deserve government assistance.