1. An "unsustainable" level of welfare spending has been asserted by Human Services Minister, Kevin Andrews, in flagging a review of the system.
2. However, the number of people on welfare has not increased over the past decade when it is measured on a per capita basis rather than in raw-number terms.
3. Furthermore, when the age pension is excluded the proportion of people receiving welfare payments was consistently lower under Labor than in most of the second half of the Howard Coalition government.
4. Recent increases in the number of people receiving Newstart are explained largely by classification changes through the forcing of parents off parenting benefits, and increased unemployment.
5. While it would be more productive to investigate other areas of the welfare system, unemployment and disability benefits are a more politically convenient target.
6. Any investigation of whether "perverse incentives" are encouraging potential jobseekers to apply for disability support instead should consider whether the conditions under which Newstart allowance is made available, rather than just the disparity in payment amounts, might contribute to the problem (if it even exists.)
Firstly, my deepest thanks to those who have responded to my call for financial support for this site. The money raised so far (several hundred dollars) isn't enough for me to think about cancelling any upcoming remote fieldwork assignments during the state election campaign (shudder) but it is enough that I will be able to put some money into upgrading my remote internet access so that I will be online more or less every night. More such support is welcome and the more I get the more time I can spend working on my coverage of elections (including my state election guide below and many other pieces to come) rather than pulling 914 Hypogastrura purpurascens out of a pitfall trap. That said, today's piece isn't about elections at all - at least, not directly ...
Every now and then this site covers policy matters as opposed to its usual fodder of elections and polling. A policy issue that I haven't covered in depth before cropped up this week when Human Services minister Kevin Andrews announced a review of welfare spending. His key claims: the increase in welfare spending is unsustainable, there are possibly too many people on disability support pensions (DSP), and there may be perverse incentives for people to go onto DSP.
I've put together some graphs on this. The first is based on The Australian's graph for 2002-2012.
Note that "Newstart" here does not include all those "on the dole" as those aged 16-21 and unemployed are on Youth Allowance and fall under "other", together with students, carers and various minor benefits. Over the period from 2002 to 2012, there is a slight decline in the total number of Centrelink customers, bottoming out in 2007 and rising sharply from 2009.
There are a number of things we can do to make these figures tell a truer story. Firstly, Kevin Andrews has explicitly stated that the age pension (which is granted to an increasing number of applicants as post-war baby boomers reach retirement age) is not going to be part of the review. So let's look at the trend for those aspects of Centrelink support that might be reviewed, and see if there's a crisis in those aspects:
Suddenly the story is very different! If we look at the number of Centrelink recipients who are not age pensioners, the highest levels in the sample were in the middle of the Howard government's rule. The highest level under Labor was lower than in any year in the period 2002-5.
And there is another way in which the data should be re-examined: it's completely absurd to look at a raw increase in welfare recipient numbers as if any increase is automatically a problem. After all, even assuming the proportion of people seeking assistance is static, the total number of people receiving support will grow naturally as a result of Australia's population increase. So here's the Australian's graph redone to show the proportion of Australia's population on welfare:
In the period 2002-2012 there is a net decrease in the proportion on welfare from over 25% to the low 22s. A lower proportion of the population was on welfare every year of Labor's rule than in five of these six years under the Coalition.
Now let's combine the two objections and produce a graph that shows the proportion of Australia's population who are on welfare but who are not on the age pension (the steady increase of which can be seen in the chart above):
2013: What About That Soaring Newstart Rate?
2013 wasn't included in the graphs in the Australian, but was covered in the charts in the SMH and deserves to be discussed separately. A number of the figure categories are not directly comparable. But these are the key figures according to the data published by SMH:
* Age pension increased from 2.28 million to 2.35 million. Adjusted for population growth it was up by around 1.6%.
* Disability support pension dropped from 827,460 to 821,738. Adjusted for population growth it was back to the levels of 2004-6.
* Youth Allowance rose from 355,276 to 361,496, an increase that is negligible once adjusted for population growth.
* Carers Allowance rose from 205,565 to 221,954, about a 6.5% increase on a population-adjusted basis.
* And the big two: Newstart Allowance rose from 549,773 to 660,673, about an 18.5% increase on a population basis. But the gain in Newstart recipients of around 111K was offset by a fall in those on parenting payment of around 75K (433,924 to 358,908, an 18.5% decrease once adjusted for population.)
If we add Parenting and Newstart together and adjust for population, there is an increase in the two combined, but adjusted for population it is very modest (up 2.2% on the previous level, or an extra 0.1% of Australia's population moving onto one of these allowances.)
While it may seem odd to add such different benefits together, there is a reason for it: the Gillard Government tightened eligibility for parenting payments, forcing many non-working parents onto Newstart. This is the main cause of the 2013 blowout in Newstart allowance - it is a reclassification issue. The other cause is that unemployment went up. When unemployment goes up, more people seek unemployment benefits. Funny, that.
If this is a welfare-spending crisis then the Howard government was a welfare-spending catastrophe, and if Labor's recent level of welfare support has been unsustainable then it's a wonder the Howard government's didn't force us back into the stone age.
Of course, there are other factors at play. Official unemployment was higher in 2002-3 than during Labor's term, and it looks like the average official unemployment rate under Labor was actually slightly lower in the period covered by the Australian's graph. (The official rate, is an undermeasure anyway, but that's another story.) But there is very little in the above to indicate a crisis of unsustainability in levels of welfare receipt. Furthermore, to use increases in welfare spending that result from temporarily rising unemployment to argue that the system needs tightening is silly. It should be expected that when unemployment is high welfare spending will increase. Any government that tries to hold it at the same level in such circumstances will inevitably do so by being harsher on those on it, holding them to blame for the failures of government in managing the unemployment rate.
That's not to say the system shouldn't be reviewed. Welfare is an expensive system and it is well worth reviewing all aspects of it to see if there are people on it who are getting paid money they are not near actually needing. If the income gap between Newstart and the DSP has blown out because of different indexation rates rather than valid differences then that is something worth fixing. But when the rate of DSP receipt has actually only barely increased relative to population, the scale of the problem is nothing like what is being implied.
Sceptics of the Andrews push have already pointed to the way in which problems in the treatment of people with genuine disabilities are squeezing them out of the workforce. It may also be that some conditions not previously considered as disabilities are increasingly being recognised as such, or that the ageing of the potential workforce is contributing to the proportion of people of working age who have disabilities. But let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that none of that applies and that the modest recent increase in DSP receipt is driven by people who could go on Newstart or perhaps even get jobs managing to have themselves classified as having a disability.
If there is really a perverse incentive of that kind then I suggest that it goes far beyond the disparity of payment levels. It is not just that the payment level of Newstart is comparatively low, it is that receiving Newstart is conditional upon meeting "activity test" requirements that can be tedious, unpleasant and demeaning. In particular, recipients can be required to frequently apply for jobs they have no chance whatsoever of getting, simply if they would be capable of doing the work involved if given it. They can also be required to make employer contacts to seek work irrespective of whether an employer would be remotely likely to employ them.
I agree with the idea (in general) that people on unemployment benefits should be required to accept suitable jobs, but I think that compelling someone to apply for jobs they're not going to get (thus requiring them to make a fool of themselves in the eyes of the company they're applying to) is absurd, demeaning and wrong, and a waste of the time of all concerned. The hoop-jumping involved in qualifying for Newstart is bad enough for someone who is "only" having to deal with the psychological and financial stresses of being unemployed in the first place; if they are additionally dealing with a serious physical or mental condition then it would be very tempting for them to seek classification as permanently disabled just to attempt to get away from this sort of bureaucracy. They would be thus tempted even if the payment amounts were the same and possibly even if the payment rate for DSP was slightly less.
A particularly strange problem with the current system is that it tests suitability to perform the "activity test" not by whether a person is medically competent to perform the activity test, but by whether a person is fit to work. The current Centrelink system does not explicitly recognise the possibility of a person being able to work (given suitable work in an appropriate setting) but being unable to cope psychologically at a given time with the requirements of the Centrelink activity test. (Indeed, a person might have deep-seated problems with being required to look for work in the way specified by Centrelink even without having any medical or psychological problems affecting their capacity to work. )
And That's The Way It's Meant To Be?
To broaden into a more general rant on the subject, welfare politics is a persistently ugly area of Australian political debate. It is dominated by the stereotype of the "dole-bludger"; a person who prefers to be unemployed and working the system, refusing all offers of work, to taking any job available. There is great fear that no matter what governments do to keep these animals at bay they will always find a way to milk the system. There is great pressure on governments to avoid being seen to pander to such creatures and hence there is a bipartisan consensus on making the system strict and if necessary erring on the side of subtle unpleasantness. It also helps governments that any money saved by being insidiously nasty to dole recipients becomes available to spend on other priorities or to the government's bottom line. So long as there is public perception that support is available for those who need it, it doesn't matter to politicians if there are actually a few people falling through the cracks or having an extremely difficult time dealing with the system's requirements. Indeed, if people find that being on the dole is nastier than it really ought to be, and do everything they can to avoid it (including working in effective sweatshop conditions for well below the minimum wage) then, hey, result.
My impression is that while Labor made virtually no progress in making the Centrelink system more humane, it did wind back the zeal in enforcement of the Howard years and make the system slightly more flexible and bearable. The system remained unbearable for many of those on it, but it was less a purposefully hostile unbearableness, and more a case of a bureaucracy struggling under its own weight. The analogy I often use for Centrelink under Labor is that of a drift-net, which continues floating through the ocean with no hostile purpose but now and then catches things anyway.
Experts of various stripes are already lining up to say the Coalition, if it wants to effectively rein in welfare spending, should start by addressing the age pension and middle-class or business welfare. But the recipients of the age pension and middle-class welfare are powerful political forces and won't put up with it. Furthermore, there is a general belief that when people reach retirement age they have earned the right to live in a state that's more than bare Newstart-style survivability. On the other hand, the bipartisan disinterest in making the dole humane and liveable means the Coalition can target those on Newstart and the DSP as much as they like. To the extent that these people vote at all, they won't vote Coalition anyway, and moreover their problems do not seem to swing the votes of others the way some other "bleeding-heart" issues do. Many of the affluent lefties and Liberal moderates who continually emote about Australia's treatment of asylum seekers seem to have a blind spot in their conscience on this issue. Newstart recipients make perfect political scapegoats because no matter how hard you kick them, they don't fight back, and no-one else fights for them. Even the advocacy of the Greens on welfare issues, while better than that of the majors, has generally struck me as timid and mostly concerned with the rate of Newstart payments and punishments for breaching conditions, rather than the conditions of such payments themselves.
Doubtless, long-term welfare dependency is a terrible thing and we do need to provide those who are without work for a long time with skills to help them to get back into the workforce. But I am not in favour of the paternalistic/coercive approach to this embodied from the Howard Government's "Mutual Obligation" catchphrase on, that says that even if someone does not want to look for work in a particular way, you force them to do so, even if they know and you know that it won't be successful. I believe that we should increase the flexibility in how people on allowances go about looking for work, and orient the system more towards providing them with the assistance they want, rather than the assistance that Centrelink thinks they need. If the cost of this is a few more "dole-bludgers" exploiting the net, then as a (low-level) taxpayer I couldn't care less, and I think anyone wealthy enough to really feel the difference to their own taxes is in a very poor position to harshly judge those who are receiving the allowances in question.
My Draft Proposal: New Right Welfare Socialism!
That may all sound a bit lefty and idealistic by my standards, but I throw the right a bone as well. That is that I believe the minimum wage in Australia is actually somewhat higher than it needs to be. There are people who are capable of working for less than the current minimum wage, and would choose to do so, but who are constrained from so doing because employers are not technically allowed to offer jobs at such pay levels. (I have worked below the minimum wage, by the way; when I edited Togatus for two years I kept a log of hours and on average I earned $9 per hour.)
But if life on the dole was not such a demeaning pittance, and indeed if we allowed employers to offer lower-wage jobs subject to the condition that jobseekers were not forced to accept jobs that paid below a stated level, then we would not have to worry so much about people being forced to work in poverty. The alternative of accepting dole payments would outcompete any job that was so low-paying it deserved to be illegal. Nor, if we had a more supportive unemployment system, would we need to worry so much about restrictions on the rights of employers to sack people. Much of the regulation of the Australian labor market appears to exist to protect people from becoming unemployed because it is so horrible. But if we made it less horrible and actually more bearable, much of the justification for the level of regulation would disappear, allowing for great cuts in business costs and enabling business to hire more people. So the increased tax costs for business of paying for a less stingy welfare sector would be offset by cost reductions for business in other areas.
I point out that the minimum-wage system is already to some extent a failure, because Centrelink's activity requirements are already coercing so many jobseekers into doing voluntary work in order to get the dole, allowing government departments, charities and so on to circumvent minimum wage law by getting "volunteers" to work for them.
It is true, of course, that what I propose would weight outcomes at the low-income end of the workforce in favour of those who are thrifty and with few commitments, and harshly against those who financially overcommit or overbreed. Such changes would have to be managed carefully over a long period for these reasons. But on the whole, I think such a re-alignment would eventually be a good thing.
Bring on the calls of "stick to psephology!"
Update Jan 28: Welfare Polling
And since this is mainly a psephology site, it would be remiss of me to note that as little as it stands up to scrutiny like the above, the voters have largely given the Andrews push the predictable thumbs up.
ReachTEL, in a poll that has returned the worst yet result for the Abbott government (47-53), find 59.2% supporting a full review of the welfare system to 16.9% against. Support is across the board by age groups but with young voters less likely to agree and older voters more likely to be neutral as opposed to disagreeing. The question is somewhat ambiguous because some may support a full review of welfare while having the belief that it should find something very different to what Kevin Andrews wants to.
Essential has found 41% of respondents think welfare payments are too low, 24% think too high, 27% about right. Limited breakdown information is provided (and largely predictable). For all the concern about the levels of the DSP getting out of whack with Newstart, only 8% think the DSP is too high (compared with 2% for the aged pension, 27% for unemployment and 31% for parenting payment.) Half the sample was informed of the payment levels, which made those commenting on the aged pension level slightly less likely to think it was too low, but more likely to think that of unemployed and parenting payments. There is strong support for making unemployment (65%) and parenting support payments (55%) more difficult to get, probably coming almost entirely from voters who have never attempted to receive either. Older voters supported making parenting support payments hard to get, opposing the same for the aged pension.