Welfare 'zombie lies' and myths must be answered

Most welfare recipients do not enjoy being “on welfare”.

In 2006, Alternet's Joshua Holland coined the “zombie lie”: an untruth that returns from the dead to haunt us, despite already being demolished by arguments and evidence.

Politics is dominated by zombie lies. “Asylum seekers are 'queue jumpers' arriving here illegally” is a classic example. Over the past few decades, zombie lies have helped legitimise paternalistic, punitive welfare reforms. They still shape debates about how to treat poor and unemployed Australians.

Lie one: Welfare breeds dependency: generous, lenient, “unconditional” welfare make recipients passive, stifling their self-reliance and motivation to find work. Hence the periodic reforms to Centrelink payments to make them more burdensome.

Most welfare recipients do not enjoy being “on welfare”. Research shows they are more likely to feel humiliated and miserable. They are usually desperate to find work to raise income and give life structure.

There is no cultural divide between those on welfare payments and those not. Mark Rank has explored US research showing the employed and unemployed share the same attitudes and values, including towards work.

Many welfare recipients stop searching for work, but this is usually because of the demoralising effects of frustratingly long, fruitless searches for jobs. It is not because life for recipients is so easy that it undermines the incentive to find work.

Anyone who considers life on welfare easy should try living on Newstart, which is several thousand dollars a year below the Henderson poverty line.

Australia has one of the harshest, most tightly targeted welfare systems among OECD countries. Only 3.2% of GDP is spent on welfare compared with the OECD average of 6.5%.

Rather than being unconditional, the unemployed must search for six to 10 jobs a fortnight; sign “Employment Pathway Plans” requiring job-search, education and training commitments; and accept jobs requiring less than 90 minutes travel one-way. They lose eight weeks of payments for refusing “reasonable” job offers.

Lie two: If you cannot make ends meet on welfare payments, this must be incompetence or irresponsibility. This idea influences income management, which has operated in the NT for five years and now extends to five new locations in a new “trial”.

Many welfare recipients suffer from financial stress, but this is usually because of meagre payment levels, not reckless consumption of alcohol, cigarettes or gambling. Instead, the plight of the poor and unemployed is attributed to individual vice, not government policy or economic changes.

The generally correct explanation is significant cost-of-living increases and payments that have not kept up with these increases – in real terms, Newstart has not increased since 1995.

An Australian Council of Social Service report from 2010 noted rises of 91%, 58% and 63% in electricity, housing and health costs over the past decade.

An Anglicare Victoria survey from 2009 found only 4% of recipients' payments was spent on alcohol, cigarettes and gambling, whereas 70% was spent on necessities like groceries and housing.

Lie three: Anyone who wants to work can find work; barriers to employment are mainly character flaws of welfare recipients or their poor attitudes.

It is convenient for business and government to suggest it is the character of those on welfare, irresponsibility or lack of motivation, that prevents them from securing work, not the character of the labour market.

But there are simply not enough jobs for everyone who wants to work. There has never been under capitalism. Zero unemployment never even existed during the so-called golden age of capitalism, the period of sustained economic growth between the late '40s and early '70s.

Low unemployment figures disguise the extent of unemployment. It takes only one hour of work a week to be “employed”. Underemployment remains a big issue.

This is desirable for capitalists because sizeable pools of desperately poor, unemployed workers gives employers more power by increasing competition for jobs, pushing down wages, and keeping workers disciplined and (for low-skills jobs) easily replaceable.

Eva Cox's analysis of data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics from March last year suggests there is one job for every six job seekers.

Available jobs generally favour the well-educated, whereas half the long-term unemployed have less than year 12 qualifications. Cox identified 100,000 jobs for managers/professionals, 30,000 for technicians/trades-persons, 44,500 administrative positions and only 18,251 jobs for those with limited qualifications or experience.

This, sadly, is compounded by well-known prejudices of employers against single mothers, people with disabilities, older unemployed and long-term unemployed (even when they have recently had training), documented in a 2008 federal government survey of employers.

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