The federal government is considering a proposal to force young unemployed people into strict military-style boot camps.
The plan is an inadequate, simplistic response to the complex problem of youth unemployment. The fact that Labor is seriously exploring the scheme is another indication of how increasingly right-wing the party has become on welfare policy.
The proposal, promoted as a “possible vote winner” to be announced before the upcoming election, would force early school leavers aged 15 to 21 into tough, hard-line boot camps, though precise details remain sketchy.
Significantly, the plan calls for $70 million over four years to be reallocated from job service providers, widely regarded as underfunded.
The drive to make the welfare system more heavy-handed for young unemployed people is a recurring theme for the two big parties: last month, the Coalition proposed a system of timed welfare payments for young unemployed people living in certain regions that would expire after six months.
Labor's boot camps seem based on certain myths about unemployment. Emphasising strict army-like discipline, the camps suggest unemployed people are unemployed because of their personal qualities — irresponsible, self-destructive habits, or poor discipline and work ethic.
If only we could install the right character traits, then it would only be a matter of time before they found work, right?
But there is no cultural divide between those on welfare payments and those not. Researcher Mark Rank has explored US studies showing that the employed and unemployed consistently share the same attitudes and values on a range of issues, including toward work.
The cabinet submission proposing the boot camps apparently cites the positive example of BoysTown, which has run boot camps and other programs for young unemployed people for many years. The submission cites a Monash University study that said 61% of participants in BoysTown found full-time and 12% part-time work.
But this is hardly conclusive and raises some obvious questions: How many of those positions were long-term? Short-term positions that force unemployed people to move back and forth between work and welfare are hardly ideal. How long after the boot camps did participants find these positions? Are the figures actually that impressive? They do suggest 27% of participants did not find work, which is still higher than the youth unemployment rate.
The belief that the unemployed are unemployed because of their character or personality is sadly widespread and has shaped many Labor welfare reforms.
Not because the belief is true, but because the belief deflects attention away from economic and policy factors behind poverty and unemployment — from chronic underfunding of support services for unemployed people to an economic system unable to provide enough work for all, especially enough decent, secure work.
It is clear that these boot camps, whatever form they take, will not create any new jobs, and may further alienate and socially exclude vulnerable people, at a time when youth unemployment, and underemployment, is a growing problem.
Twenty-five percent of Australians aged 15-25 are not engaged in full-time employment or study. Recent figures show the youth unemployment rate is more than four times the national average, while the number of long-term unemployed young people tripled between 2008 and 2011.
The youth underemployment rate is almost 35%, as noted by Lucas Walsh in The Conversation. Over the past year there has been a 30% rise in the number of Youth Allowance recipients.
There is a huge need to raise funding for job service providers and other support services. The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) has called for more career counselling for early school leavers. ACOSS has noted that Youth Connections, which provides this and other services to early school leavers (but has not had its funding guaranteed beyond next year), reaches only one-third of those requiring its help.
Job service providers only receive $500 per long-term unemployed person to address barriers to employment through training and work experience. They are only funded to interview the long-term unemployed once every two months and are not funded to provide career counselling.
Vocational training organisations receive no extra funds to help disadvantaged trainees needing mentoring and help with course costs.
Other more credible alternatives to boot camps, advocated by ACOSS and the National Welfare Rights Network, include doubling the wage subsidy system to 20,000 places a year and introducing paid work experience.
These schemes are considered more effective ways to help disadvantaged job-seekers, particularly unemployed young people. A federal government evaluation showed that wage subsidies increased the likelihood of job-seekers securing work by 14%.
It is likely Labor thinks the boot camps would act as incentives to young job-seekers — search desperately and furiously for work, any work, and take any job offered to you or else. Besides being cruel, this idea is based on another myth: that there actually are enough jobs for everyone who needs one.
This is simply untrue. Welfare policy expert Eva Cox has frequently noted that the ratio of jobs to job-seekers is dismal — at least three job-seekers exist for every listed job. The ratio jumps to a possible 10 to 1 when it includes discouraged people who have stopped searching or underemployed people.
Available jobs often favour the well-educated, further disadvantaging unemployed youth, especially early school leavers. Cox, exploring Australian Bureau of Statistics data from March last year, identified 100,000 jobs for managers/professionals, 30,000 for technicians/tradespeople, 44,500 administrative positions, but only 18,251 jobs for those with limited qualifications or experience.
Of course, if there are not enough jobs, this is more reason not to punish young unemployed people (or any unemployed people) by forcing them to live on Youth Allowance, which at $29 a day (or $406 a fortnight), is roughly 50% below the poverty line.
Youth Allowance is even lower than Newstart. Yet Youth Allowance recipients living independently have the same needs as Newstart recipients.
If there are not enough jobs, the welfare system should be non-judgemental and not blame people for being born into capitalist countries where unemployment is ever-present, and where jobs, especially long-term, meaningful, secure jobs, are becoming harder to find and maintain.
While boot camps are likely to be ineffective responses to youth unemployment, they would continue Labor's victim-blaming record on welfare.
For the party that expanded John Howard's compulsory income management throughout the Northern Territory — and then beyond to a growing number of “trial” sites — and forced 100,000 single parents from Parenting Payment to Newstart, many losing more than $100 per week, it would make perfect sense that youth boot camps would be regarded as acceptable and reasonable ways of dealing with young job-seekers.