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  • Author or Editor: Greg Marston x
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Although its roots reach back into the 1980s, the Australian version of welfare reform has intensified over the last decade under the direction of the conservative Howard government. In this article we chart the path to welfare-to-work policies, noting both the discontinuities as well as a degree of continuity with Australia’s traditional approach to social protection. As such, welfare reform in Australia is both revolutionary and evolutionary. Further, its acceptance by the Australian public has been shaped by a sophisticated form of persuasion couched within a discourse of ‘participation’ and ‘obligation’. Finally, we note that in the case of welfare reform, Australia’s approach has switched its traditional reliance on UK social policy models to a social security system designed on the principles of welfare reform as implemented in the US.

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More Harm than Good?

More than a decade on from their conception, this book reflects on the consequences of income management policies in Australia and Zealand.

Drawing on a three-year study, it explores the lived experience of those for whom core welfare benefits and services are dependent on government conceptions of ‘responsible’ behaviour. It analyses whether officially claimed positive intentions and benefits of the schemes are outweighed by negative impacts that deepen the poverty and stigma of marginalised and disadvantaged groups.

This novel study considers the future of this form of welfare conditionality and addresses wider questions of fairness and social justice.

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The chapter examines social policy and the law, both in terms of social security law that facilitates income management and administrative law as it pertains to citizen redress and review. Analysis of the legal restrictions imposed through compulsory income management in Australia and New Zealand is needed to ascertain the extent to which the autonomy of welfare recipients is impacted and how this affects consumer choices. In Australia, compulsory income management has required that managed funds be spent at government approved retailers on legislatively defined ‘priority needs’. An under-examined aspect of compulsory income management is therefore the constraints it places on the contractual capacity of welfare recipients subject to it and how this relates to structural equity barriers. The chapter explores how law can impact the relationships between citizens and what factors are considered by lawmakers in determining whether some people are worthy of being accorded the same citizenship rights as others, thereby drawing attention to the distribution of burdens and benefits in administrative justice. Methods of analysis include participant interviews reflections on procedural rights and review, critical analysis of relevant legislation, and legislative instruments in Australia and New Zealand.

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The chapter highlights individual and collective resistance to the material restrictions associated with ‘being on the card’. Resistance can occur through formal and informal channels, and it can be overt or covert as the participant interviews highlight. The sense of shame of ‘being on the card’ sometimes resulted in avoidance of public spaces and commercial settings where the devalued identity of being a ‘welfare recipient’ would be more visible to others. Other forms of resistance discussed in the chapter include attempting to circumvent income quarantining, such as buying approved goods with the card and selling them for cash. Covert resistance like this was perceived by participants as less risky than ‘overt resistance’ in the form of trading public protests, direct advocacy and coordinated campaigns. This chapter traces the public campaigns and policy activism, both off-line and online that have sought to change the policy settings. Interviews with community stakeholders from different trial sites are drawn upon to examine the effectiveness of ongoing campaigns and advocacy to have the compulsory income management trials halted.

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The details of how a voluntary income management programme might work is outlined in the chapter. The chapter also explores other means of building financial capability, using developmental and educational models and insights from the research literature on poverty reduction. In considering alternatives to punitive forms of welfare conditionality, the chapter highlights some of the differences between New Zealand and Australia, as there are lessons which Australia could learn from the use of mentors and more empowering forms of budget support in the case of New Zealand. This chapter also revisits the mixed economy of welfare by suggesting that non-government organisations could play a more enabling role in the lives of low-income households if they were encouraged to work in ways that would promote a different set of assumptions and principles to improve economic security and community wellbeing. The links between economic security and well-being are elaborated, using the public health research that demonstrates that economic insecurity is a strong determinant of mental health. Drawing on insights from a range of studies and disciplines the chapter concludes with an argument for evidence informed social security policies, which will help to reframe questions of economic and social security.

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The final chapter takes a global perspective on economic and social security and considers new and emerging risks that income support systems must respond to in the twenty-first century, which include shifting demographics in terms of age and household formation, increased geographical mobility, new forms of precarious labour associated with changes in technology and environmental risks resulting from climate change. There is a need to revisit first principles when determining the primary policy goals of a social security system. Addressing the inadequacy of income support payments, ensuring decent employment and training opportunities, and providing accessible social services is a better starting point for creating healthy, economically secure and socially inclusive communities, compared with blunt and punitive policies that are pushing ordinary citizens further towards the margins of their communities.

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The first chapter places the Australian and New Zealand cases of conditional welfare in an historical and comparative global context. The chapter traces the intellectual and political foundations of welfare conditionality, and its various manifestations in a range of countries, particularly the Anglosphere welfare states that have a high degree of convergence around poverty governance. The chapter also outlines the theoretical lens that is used to analyse and understand welfare conditionality in Australia and New Zealand. Here we draw on theories of human agency, social identity and autonomy and social justice frameworks as developed by a range of scholars that acknowledge the intersections between redistribution, recognition and representation in policy development, welfare administration, and sociolegal studies.

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The basic question this chapter seeks to answer is, how did Australia and New Zealand arrive at a moment where they felt it was necessary to introduce policy changes that are quite unique compared with other countries. The focus of the discussion centres around notions of welfare and income support recipient subjectivities, noting the differences and similarities between the two countries in relation to narratives around race and nationalism in settler colonial societies, and the construction of families and children in the justification for the introduction of compulsory income management. Concerns about the welfare of children were prominent features of the debate in both countries, and young people were positioned as ‘vulnerable’ and at risk of not making a successful transition to the workforce. The data drawn on for this chapter is an analysis of Hansard documents, media discourse and interviews with politicians to provider an ‘insider’ perspective on the politics of compulsory income management. The analytical approach draws on interpretative policy analysis, paying explicit attention to values, discourse and subjectivities in constructing the social problem that income quarantining and welfare conditionality purports to address.

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The chapter examines policy implementation of compulsory income management, with consideration given to the limits of the consultation approaches used by government, the mixed economy of welfare in the delivery of compulsory income management, and the role of intermediaries such as front-line social services and for-profit companies that provide the cashless welfare technologies. The chapter details the range of practical and administrative issues that have been identified by research participants living on compulsory income management in Australia and New Zealand. The chapter also considers the perspectives of community stakeholders. What the empirical analysis highlights is that the majority of the people targeted by the policy do not see themselves as having a problem with alcohol or gambling, or in managing money. What they lack are the financial resources to meet their needs. The analysis also shows that, with some exceptions, the introduction of compulsory income management led to a further deterioration of people’s financial wellbeing.

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Compulsory income management has been touted as a measure to bring financial stability to welfare recipients’ lives, improving the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities in the process. In reality, however, compulsory income management can have contradictory and even counterproductive effects. This chapter explores the impact of compulsory income management on participants’ wellbeing and sense of self. It shows that – while financial stress and reduced financial control are key concerns for many participants – the infantilisation and stigmatisation that compulsory income management involves are also powerful stressors. Together, these factors can contribute to significant reductions in participant wellbeing, harming cardholders, their families and their communities. The influence of financial deprivation on physical and psychological wellbeing underlines the importance of available funds, personal autonomy and social connectedness for good health. While a minority of individuals experience improved financial and material stability under compulsory income management the social and emotional impacts of the policy have been largely negative.

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