As seen in the The Guardian

The federal government has put forward further cuts to our social security system that will make life more difficult for many vulnerable Australians who are already struggling to survive.

In a speech delivered yesterday, Alan Tudge, the minister for human services, proposed that reducing “welfare dependency” is a critical component of the government’s reform agenda. The minister argued that the proposed changes to our social security system will improve the lives of the people targeted; that they are for their own good and based on principles of “mutual obligation”.

We know through our work supporting Australians through periods of unemployment, addiction or traumatic life events, that support, not punishment, is what works to help people who face real barriers to searching for jobs.

Whether mistakenly or disingenuously, the measures are being justified by claims that they will reduce “pathways into poverty”, such as family breakdown, addiction and unemployment. The reality is that the proposed measures will push already vulnerable people further into poverty and increase stigma around addiction.

One of the key reforms is the introduction of a “demerit system” for job seekers. People will be penalised for not turning up to jobactive appointments or job interviews. The sanction could be losing their already meagre income for up to four weeks.

The job seekers who will be caught up in the demerit system will be people with challenging and complex lives. They will be people who struggle with health concerns, substance misuse, family violence, volatile housing, or onerous caring responsibilities – and often with more than one of those issues at once.

A big stick doesn’t make any of those complexities go away.

Cutting job seekers’ income actually reduces their capacity to look for work. With people on lower incomes pushed out to live on the fringes of our cities and towns because of rising rents, the cost of travelling to interviews can be substantial. For people who can’t afford rent and don’t have a secure home, who may be living out of their car or sleeping on a friend’s floor, getting a good night’s sleep and a hot shower before an interview can be a huge challenge.

The demerit system will have unacceptable impacts on peoples’ lives and their families. People receiving income support are often barely surviving on payments that have been driven well below the cost of living. A single person on Newstart has to scrape by on $38 a day. For a person on Youth Allowance, it is $31. In many cities and towns across Australia now, that will not cover the rent, let alone food and bills. There is no buffer for savings or unexpected costs.

When you remove even that flimsy safety net, people will have no means to get by. By cutting off one income, entire families could be pushed into further poverty and into homelessness.

While organisations like Mission Australia stand ready to support people in need, we also believe it is the role of government to provide a strong and secure social safety net for all Australians, particularly the most vulnerable among us.

It doesn’t feel good to have to ask for charity. It can be disenfranchising and distressing. When people have a sense of agency to make their own choices, they are empowered and more likely to gain independence and fulfil their aspirations.

Our social security system was created as a safety net, to catch people falling into financial and personal difficulties. As a society, we recognise that it is good for us all when every person in our community has income support to meet their basic needs and work toward a brighter future. It’s something most of us contribute to and benefit from at some point in our lives.

The proposed changes that have earned the loudest and most frenzied media headlines are those that target people with substance misuse issues.

If passed by the parliament, 5000 people at three locations across Australia will be forced through the indignity of a randomised drug test or face having their social security payments cut.

For people who consent to the test and fail, their income will be quarantined into a cashless welfare card. Another indignity that wrongly mistakes paternalism for a helping hand. This will stigmatise people, not support them.

Making people who receive social security pay with a card that announces to the world that they are receiving social security payments is not treating them with dignity.

When people with substance misuse issues are unable to work, the threat of punishment will not be enough to help them to get a job. Additional pressures that come from unreasonable job search requirements may even feed the cycle of addiction. While they will also be referred to treatment, a scarcity of specialist services means that many people will face a long wait.

Our experience shows that people given the opportunity to seek treatment, develop their skills and gain employment will grasp it with both hands. Providing adequate services including rehabilitation, training and employment support for those with complex needs must become a greater priority.

It is a shame that some very welcome targeted early intervention initiatives to assist people into employment have been overshadowed by a heavy handed stick approach that is unlikely to result in positive outcomes for those who most need support. Driving people deeper into poverty is never the answer.

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