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- Author or Editor: Emma Mitchell x
- Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities x
We are often told that mean welfare is what the public wants. Whether or not that's true, this book encourages us all to at least be honest about what that entails.
It explores how diverse welfare users navigate the personal and practical hurdles of Australia’s so-called social security system where benefits are deliberately meagre and come with strings attached. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in a region of Sydney known for ethnic diversity and socio-economic disadvantage, Emma Mitchell brings her own experience belonging to a poor family long reliant on welfare to her research.
This book shows the different cultural resources that people bring to welfare encounters with a sensitivity and subtly that are often missing in both sympathetic and cynical accounts of life on welfare.
The Introduction situates the book’s aim of foregrounding culturally diverse accounts of welfare in relation to living social policy and moving social policy. It sets up the approach of the book as informed by ethnrographic attention to depth and complexity and the author’s first-hand perspective of an improverished life on welfare. This approach is attuned to the messiness and vivacity of lived lives and the uneven places and provisions of welfare within a fragmented welfare landscape. The introduction traces the movement of welfare policy and politics across the life of the research from PhD project to book. It shows how dominant policy ideas of vulnerability and resonsbility have remained current even as the meanings of those ideas have shifted across time and place.
Chapter 2 provides the big picture backdrop for the rest of the book by placing Australia’s welfare system in international and historical context. It gives an overview of the resurgence and rise of more meagre and punitive welfare in Australia and the targeting of sanctions and supports at the most vulnerable welfare users with ‘complex needs’. While moral distinctions between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor have returned to prominence over the last three decades, they are deeply rooted in the foundations of the Australian welfare state. The chapter briefly outlines the history of exclusions and ‘conditional inclusion’ embedded in welfare provision, and how the settler-colonial welfare state dealt with Indigenous and non-white immigrant difference. The chapter concludes by situating Australian developments in relation to similar shifts in the UK, Aotearoa/New Zealand and Canada.
Chapter 3 looks at the different versions of reciprocity that interviewees drew on to frame and justify their expectations of social support. During interviews, welfare users invoked various forms of reciprocity in their talk about welfare[, from contributing to collective benefit to mutual investment between individuals In doing so, they expressed different forms of belonging to the nation and made claims on its resources. The responses of the small but diverse range of interviewees suggest more about dynamics than patterns of expectation. The chapter shows how familiar scripts are loaded with the details of personal biography and social circumstance. It concludes by drawing on Ghassan Hage’s concept of the ‘social gift’ to argue that attention to the mode of accessing rights helps understand the problem of inequality and discrimination for those who are formally, although sometimes only partially, included.
Chapter 4 continues the focus on reciprocity and welfare access. It foregrounds interviews and observations with frontline practitioners in community welfare organisations. It shows how ideas about positive and negative access inform judgements about the initiative of welfare users as a sign of empowered responsibility or dependent opportunism. The chapter refers to Michael Lipsky, Andrew Sayer and Tess Lea to flesh out ‘judgement’ as an emotional and bodily practice and to account for the resonance of certain scripts of access – such as ‘deserving vulnerability’ and ‘empowered responsibility’ – with frontline workers. The chapter argues that gratitude is the point where the problems of access and of cultural difference appear to intersect. Some cultural styles and demeanours become marked as arrogant and expectant and others as humble and receptive.
Chapter 5 foregrounds the experiences of the most marginal welfare claimants in the study. It builds on Kathleen Miller’s concept of ‘everyday emergencies’ to show how everyday disruptions and obstacles unsettle yet settle into daily life in poverty. The chapter also builds on Mark Peel’s concept of ‘performing poverty’ and Kate Brown’s concept of ‘performing vulnerability’ to argue that welfare users are often required to reperform vulnerability for the welfare system. Individuals on both sides of the welfare frontline may be aware of the performative aspects of describing hardship, but performing does not equal pretending. The chapter shows how the compulsion to perform vulnerability shapes welfare users’ encounters with welfare agencies even if it does not determine the outcome of those encounters. Some seeking support choose to remove themselves from the welfare rolls rather than make themselves repeatedly vulnerable to the audience of experts.
Chapter 6 looks closely at the stories of two individuals in very different circumstances, but both afflicted with a deep sense of shame about relying on the Australian government for protection. Hasan was in limbo while he waited for the outcome of a review of his asylum case. Monica was a single parent and long-term welfare user who struggled to reconcile her aspirations and her circumstances. Through Hasan and Monica’s stories, this chapter pays attention to the productive and destructive dimensions of shame and disentangles the different capacities it makes possible or undermines. Asserting the power of personal choice as a vehicle for change and the sacrifice of personal dignity for the survival of the family is an anguished strategy of self-preservation when the prospects of one’s family look bleak and uncertain.
Chapter 7 draws attention to the modest pursuits and pleasures that sustain a liveable life in hardship but don’t necessarily conform to popular ideas of ‘good resilience’. It argues that research on lived experiences of welfare tends to be reactive in orientation, so that welfare users are more often positioned as adept responders than pursuers in accounts of getting by. The chapter builds on the work of Les Back and Eve Tuck to foreground examples of hope amid the strain of life on welfare without falling into overly rosy accounts of resilience or reinforcing the expectation that people face difficult situations with plucky resolve. While the understated examples of everyday care and accomplishment the chapter foregrounds may seem inconsequential, they are perhaps all the more relevant given the limited resources at the disposal of people struggling to get by.
The Conclusion reiterates the value of bringing together Anglo-settler, Indigenous and minority ethnic stories of life on welfare and the strengths and limits of ethnography in this endeavour. It foregrounds participants’ insights about the need for more understanding in Australia’s welfare system, particularly in the form of centring welfare users’ knowledge of the system. However, it also draws together lessons from the preceding chapters on practitioner ambivalence about welfare users’ knowledge and the limits of a system based on repeated disclosure, even when geared towards support. Finally, it returns to Ghassan Hage’s concept of the social gift to argue for a magnamanous rather than maligning spirit of welfare provision. In the face of mounting evidence that mean welfare exacerbates and entrenches the poverty and vulnerability it claims to tackle, the book ends by advocating a welfare system that creates possibilities rather than problems for the people who rely on it.