The system that doesn't work


By Angela Matheson

Australia's social welfare system doesn't work. Long queues and deteriorating service for people on welfare, coupled with industrial action amongst overloaded Social Security staff, indicate the breakdown in social welfare.

Workers at the Department of Social Security, welfare agencies, lobby groups, academics and welfare recipients agree that the system, at very least, requires urgent attention. Some believe the DSS needs complete restructuring.

The Public Sector Union has lodged a national claim on behalf of DSS workers calling for more staff and in-house training of workers.

Staff turnover levels are described by DSS union official George Petrovic as "unacceptably high". In inner city Sydney offices like Marrickville and Darlinghurst, up to 80% of new workers leave within a year.

"One reason the staff leave is because of stress", says Petrovic. "They are not adequately trained for handling the social problems associated with the job."

Ian McBaine, union representative for the Darlinghurst DSS, believes that the government's obsession with social security fraud has meant that staff are being absorbed from areas which serve the public to areas of review without being replaced.

"It's absolutely the case that people on benefits suffer from this", he said. "We see our prime function as getting payments out on time to people who are entitled to them. We don't feel justified tracking down the small percentage of fraud cases at the expense of everyone else. The level of confidence in higher management here is very low."

The minister for social security, Senator Richardson, strongly rejects claims that welfare recipients suffer from upper management welfare policy. While conceding that DSS staff work under great pressure at times, he argues Australia nevertheless has one of the most efficient welfare systems in the western world.

McBaine disagrees. "The service welfare recipients receive is often shithouse", he said. "It's been the case here that someone would apply for the invalid pension. The application should be processed within a month. If positions are left unfilled or workers are sick, then this person can be left waiting for months. Other times it could be done quite quickly, but it's a matter of luck for them."

Charity organisations and social policy analysts believe the DSS is a body ill equipped to deal with the social problems of welfare. Says Carol Alcott from the Smith Family, "What every welfare agency has always pushed for is adequate training of DSS staff. They don't have welfare training. They do their best but they don't understand the problems, and this makes for explosive situations."

Major Bailey from the Salvation Army concurs. "The general consensus is that more people say they've had bad experiences at the DSS than good. Everyone is having a bad day. They're sick, or homeless or haven't got a job", he said.

Built-in problems

Richard Kennedy, welfare analyst and author of a trilogy on Australian welfare history, believes the problems with Australian welfare were built into it at its inception. "To understand this welfare system you have to look at where it came from. It came from the new Poor Law passed in Britain in 1834. Its aim was to give as little as possible to the poor and to harass them so much that they would no longer look for help.

"The unemployed were put in the workhouse and single mothers in the poorhouse. It was scapegoat the victim, and that's what we're seeing in today's economic rationalist system", said Kennedy.

He argues that Australia refuses to acknowledge that its welfare system is structured to disguise the fact that unemployment, poverty, and social problems are the logical consequence of capitalist economic policies. He believes Australia has one of the worst welfare systems in the developed world.

Kennedy's claim is supported by statistics. Australia spends a mere 6% of its gross national product on social security, one of the lowest rates in the advanced industrial world. Even Britain and Spain, which have undergone retraction in social welfare spending over the past decade, still spend proportionately more on welfare.

And people on welfare receive much less financial support than those on the basic wage. Professor Jan Burton, an academic in sociology, believes the myth that people will "bludge" if they are given enough money to live on is perpetrated by government.

She cites the welfare systems of Scandinavia and West Germany as examples of countries which take responsibility for the human fallout of their economic systems. In these countries, social welfare payments parallel the average wage.

Targeting the victims

"Targeting" of Australia's largest welfare recipient groups — single parents and the unemployed — demonstrates Kennedy's claim that government projects responsibility for the inadequacies of its economic policy onto its victims.

Under new guidelines, single parents, most of whom are women, are under investigation to determine whether they are living in de facto relationships.

According to the guidelines, a person is assumed to be the de facto of a sole parent if they are of the opposite sex, have lived in the house for eight weeks and meet one of a set of extra criteria — these include joint ownership of any household good or sharing a lease. The onus is then upon the sole parent to prove they are not in a de facto relationship. Benefits are suspended until the case is decided.

This is only one issue the Women's Electoral Lobby has taken up on behalf of sole parents. Eva Cox, policy analyst for WEL, believes the DSS guidelines are archaic. "Social security entitlements should only be denied to sole parents who have someone who either agrees to offer support or who can be shown to be supplying support. As the issue is basically financial, the criteria should be financial", she said.

Targeting of the long-term unemployed is increasing at a time when unemployment is rising (it is 523,000 according to the latest figures).

Unemployed people must pass a work effort test in which prospective employers sign a certificate to prove the person has applied for work. The hidden assumption is that people seeking work are frequently offered interviews. This is not the case, yet unemployed who cannot supply signed certificates are thrown off benefits.

While people denied benefits join the growing underclass of people who live on the streets, government statistics show a reduction in welfare dependence and long-term unemployment.

DSS staff refer destitute people to charity groups. Organisations like the Smith Family and the Salvation Army are finding their resources strained.

The Smith Family alone gave cash, food, clothing, furniture and emotional support to more than 100,000 people in NSW last year. Over 95% of people who seek help from the Salvation Army are dependent on social security.

However, government grants to charity organisations have recently been reduced. n