The myth of Aboriginal 'welfare dependency'

February 14, 2001


In 1788, Captain James Cook justified land theft from Aborigines on the basis that they "set no value upon anything" and were incapable of "improving their lot". In 2000, Prime Minister John Howard justified further attacks on indigenous income by arguing that Aborigines suffer from a "poverty of purpose" induced by their welfare payments.

In the same language used by Governor Macquarie to justify herding Aborigines into reserves, Howard argued that the Coalition government's welfare "reform" package would increase "self-reliance" by indigenous people.

There is nothing new in a government peddling the lie that Aboriginal poverty, alienation and poor health is their own fault. What is new is the range of indigenous allies that have been conned into supporting it.

Delivering the Menzies lecture last year, Howard triumphantly quoted former reconciliation council chair Evelyn Scott, executive director of the Kimberley Land Council Peter Yu and Noel Pearson. Pearson, as chairperson of the Cape York Land Council, campaigned for land rights and attacked the racist ravings of Pauline Hanson. These indigenous "leaders" have now joined Howard in condemning the "welfare economy" and its impact on Aboriginal people.

Howard's solution to "welfare dependency" is to increase the number of obligations welfare recipients must meet in order to receive a basic living allowance. Whether the government will go further and introduce some sort of "collective" payment to Aboriginal communities, replacing individual payments, as has been proposed by Pearson, is unclear.

Within weeks of Howard's lecture, the ALP joined the chorus and promised to develop their own "strategy" for combating "welfare dependency".

A huge proportion of Aboriginal people rely on federal welfare payments for their basic income (41% of indigenous households have no resident wage earner). Only 24% of Aborigines were employed in 1996, compared to 40% for the total population. The Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) estimates that the real unemployment rate for indigenous people is around 48%.

To bring indigenous people's employment figures to the national average by 2006 would require 77,000 new job placements: more again than are presently held by indigenous people.

Blaming indigenous people's unemployment on the "welfare economy" implies that Aboriginal people are happier to be on welfare than in paid work. It implies that indigenous people choose to be on welfare as some sort of "lifestyle".

Grim reality

The reality is much more grim. Widespread unemployment has had devastating consequences for indigenous people. The average income of an indigenous person in Australia is just $211 a week; 15% of indigenous people live in houses that lack one or more basic working amenities. In a 1994 survey of 3500 Aboriginal households, more than 5% of respondents said they had not had enough money to buy food in the previous week.

Aboriginal health is a scandal. More than 30% of the indigenous population suffer from a long-term health problem. By the age of 50, most Aborigines are dead. The situation is not improving. Life expectancy for Aboriginal men has remained static since 1900 and for women since 1920.

It is offensive and absurd to argue that this is the result of Aboriginal people choosing welfare payments over the paid jobs.

The barriers to Aboriginal employment are complex, but they all spring from the same root cause — dispossession, marginalisation and institutionalised racism.

The dispossession of Aboriginal people's land and indigenous people's historic concentration in isolated parts of Australia have created pockets of extreme disadvantage. Much of the discussion on indigenous employment is focused on these areas.

Around 20% of indigenous people live in rural communities which have a high proportion of indigenous inhabitants. Aborigines living there are in general poorer and less healthy than those living in regional and urban areas because of the lack of infrastructure and social services in these areas. Unemployment is as high as 80% in these communities.

Indigenous people in rural areas do not have adequate access to basic services such as water, power and telephones. Access to banks, doctors and government departments is extremely difficult. Food is exorbitantly expensive because of the high cost of transport. With few services and little infrastructure or government involvement, there is not much of a labour market. Access to childcare is a significant problem that limits the ability of indigenous women to participate in paid work.

Blaming the victim

Claims of "passive welfare culture" blame the indigenous residents for not rebuilding their communities. It is like claiming that the people of Adelaide suffer power blackouts because they are too "demoralised" to generate their own electricity!

Aboriginal people have been marginalised from mainstream society since the British invasion. Racism has allowed successive governments to abrogate their responsibility for developing Aboriginal communities so that people in them can achieve an acceptable standard of living.

Instead, since 1977, many basic community services have been provided by participants in the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme. Under CDEP, individuals "choose" to forgo their social security entitlements, and instead the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) pays an equivalent amount to a local organisation. This organisation employs the individual at a wage "not less" than their entitlement. Although this "employment" is counted in the official employment statistics, the average CDEP wage in 1996 was $169 a week for men, compared with $146 a week on social security benefits.

This is the reality behind the "welfare dependency" rhetoric of the federal government, the right-wing radio hosts and the big business tabloids. At the end of 2000, 33,000 Aborigines were working for their benefits providing basic services that in most areas are the responsibility of local councils. This figure represents more 8% of the total indigenous population and around 45% of unemployed indigenous people.

Because most indigenous people are excluded from a viable labour market, there is no significant transition from CDEP schemes to award-based work. Very few CDEP schemes provide real training or qualifications for participants. The government funds CDEP schemes at half the level of the work for the dole schemes.

Worst of all, because CDEP participation is officially counted as "employment", social security recipients whose partners participate in CDEP scheme are financially penalised.

CDEP schemes are heavily supported by ATSIC because this gives it some control over resources and the development of indigenous communities. In the desperate situation that confronts many rural communities, these schemes provide some relief.

Real jobs are the answer

CDEP schemes amount to slave labour. They institutionalise the marginalisation of indigenous communities. It creates a situation where Aboriginal people must provide their own basic services and are cut off from the mainstream job market. The appalling "black wages", supposedly abolished in the 1960s, have been reinstitutionalised. The average weekly wage of non-CDEP Aboriginal workers in remote areas is just $274.

There is a real solution to the rural indigenous employment crisis: real jobs at full award wages. That means training and paying indigenous people to staff the government offices, child-care centres, health clinics and community centres that they are entitled to — just like every other Australian town. These services should be funded by the government and staffed at real wages. Also, big business should be forced to provide the banks, shopping centres and other services required by remote and rural communities.

Indigenous people urgently need more education resources so that they can take these jobs. Indigenous students have the worst literacy rate in Australia and only 33% of Aboriginal high school students graduate.

Poor English language skills are a key contributor to low retention rates, yet state governments have slashed funding to bilingual programs. Changes to the Abstudy income scheme for indigenous students have made it even more difficult for them.

Racism is a barrier to indigenous people getting work. Research by the CAEPR indicates that bosses discriminate against job seekers' because of their Aboriginality, irrespective of experience and skills.

To counter this racism requires a massive government education program and real affirmative action policies to force employers to take on more indigenous employees.

However, Australian governments are not interested in such solutions. Forced by growing outrage at the living conditions of indigenous Australians and demands to take action, governments and their apologists have invoked 19th century concepts of Aboriginal "helplessness" to justify inaction.


The alienation suffered by indigenous people is acute. This is the reason why there is a high level of substance abuse among indigenous people. It also an explanation for low participation in education. But this alienation is not caused by "dependence" on welfare — it is caused by the persistent racism and oppression faced by indigenous people that is fostered by the Australian capitalist system.

Aboriginal people face not only job discrimination, but victimisation at the hands of the police. Aboriginal people are much more likely to be the victims of crime than non-Aboriginal people. They are also far more likely to be arrested and to be jailed if convicted.

It is these conditions that produce the alienation that the likes of Pearson point to as evidence of "weakness".

Indigenous people's problems cannot be solved by denying them direct control over their own incomes, as is proposed by Pearson. ATSIC's argument that access to "cash" exacerbates these problems is an argument that Indigenous people can not be trusted with money. Nor can it be solved by an extension of CDEP schemes to urban areas, as proposed by ATSIC.

The development of indigenous businesses, which is now favoured by politicians across the spectrum is also no answer.

Such "solutions" perpetuate a paternalistic and patronising attitude to indigenous people and perpetuate the lack of control over their lives. They are nothing more than smoke-screens erected to disguise capitalist governments' racist policies, supported by a section of the indigenous bureaucracy that benefits from being recognised as "representative" of this marginalised group.