Welfare misery: It's time to fight!

The Socialist Alliance is joining the growing number of people and organisations campaigning for a big increase in all pensions and other welfare benefits. It is outrageous that people on welfare were almost totally ignored in the recent federal budget.

PM Kevin Rudd says he wants to look after Aussie battlers, but he's forcing a whole sector of the population to live in poverty while giving tax cuts to even high-income earners and keeping a major budget surplus aside.

Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan have promised to improve the method of indexation of pension payments in the future, but this hardly compensates for the fact that the cost of living for people on welfare increased 6% over the last quarter, as against the Consumer Price Index figure of 4.2%.

It is absolutely unacceptable that, according to the Council of the Ageing, in a wealthy country like Australia 39% of single adults over 65 years of age live below the Henderson poverty line. Data from the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research shows that all couples with children who rely on a pension as their only source of income are below this very tightly defined poverty line.

If we take the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development's less miserly definition of poverty (less than 50% of median earnings), then a single pensioner, who in late 2007 was receiving $268.65 per week, would have to double their pension to get above the poverty line!

No wonder the Fair Go for Pensioners Coalition is calling for the pension rate to be increased from 25% to 35% of average male weekly earnings (which would have been $417.20 in February 2008).

The Socialist Alliance says welfare payments for all those in need are a basic human right. We call for a guaranteed income for all at a living wage. We acknowledge that this would require a big increase in the welfare budget. However, in 2003 Australia was spending just 17.9% of gross domestic product on public social expenditure compared to the average for advanced industrial countries of 20.7%, and way below Sweden's 31.3%.

A budget that looked after people receiving welfare payments would also ensure enough funding for health, dental, housing, transport, respite and aged care services, which the Socialist Alliance sees as priority areas for improvement.

Connected to this latest example of government miserliness is the fundamental problem that welfare in this country is seen as a "privilege" and those who are on it suffer a permanent stigma. They are "breached" by Centrelink, forced into meaningless training schemes and subjected to repeated reviews of their eligibility to keep their benefits.

Through this policy of "mutual obligation", which Labor and the Coalition share, people are forced into low-paid alienating work, while sabotaging the conditions of those already in work.

This approach, which is the main reason around two million Australians live in poverty, must be overturned. The Socialist Alliance's Charter of Welfare Rights (see http://www.socialist-alliance.org) lays out the only way this can happen, stressing the need for an end to the policing role of Centrelink.

We call for an end to the Welfare to Work provisions, which unfairly penalise supporting parents, disabled people and the long-term unemployed.

We demand an end to assessments based on relationship status (and hence an end to the distinction between the "single" and "couple" payments). Everyone needs an independent income whether they are partnered or living alone.

Such policy would put an end to Centrelink's ridiculous and vicious witch-hunts against "marriage-like" relationships.

The same week that saw Swan's bitter pill for pensioners also saw a very sweet pill (a $50 million retirement payment) for former Macquarie Bank chief, Alan Moss.

Let that obscene contrast inspire fighters for welfare rights to get more organised and increase the pressure on the Rudd government to seriously address pension and welfare misery.

Sara Moss & Susan Austin

[Sara Moss and Susan Austin are National Executive members of the Socialist Alliance.]