This is the Welfare System You Wanted

The greatest myth in Australia is probably that of the dole bludger — and now everyone’s paying the price.

Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

At midday on March 23 businesses across Australia closed their doors with no idea about when — if ever — they will be able to reopen them.

Naturally, this caused widespread panic among business owners, contractors, freelancers, and workers of all levels in all industries across the country. Where would their incomes come from now? How will they pay their bills?

The Australian Government offered a solution: a stimulus pack and wider availability of Centrelink payments.

That day, 100,000 Australians got to experience Centrelink first hand.

These people are from different cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, and have vastly different experiences. There are undoubtedly many who have lobbied for a better welfare system who are now, unfortunately, having to experience it for the first time.

But there are also a lot of (very loud) people who believe in the dole bludger; the Centrelink methhead, the leeching “single” mother, who all take and take and take, robbing the hard-working Australian of their tax money.

You wanted to make it hard for those people (whether or not they existed in the first place) to access the welfare that they are entitled to. It shouldn’t be easy to get, people said, they only want it to spend it on drugs, smokes, alcohol, trips to Bali — most of them aren’t even Australian, don’t forget we’re overrun by boat people.

They’re all dole bludgers and we must stop them. They’re taking our tax dollars!

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Kaboompics

Josh Butler wrote an excellent article last year in response to the government and the media’s deeply-rooted attachment to punishing the dole bludgers (or, more aptly, anybody on Newstart). From his article, here are some experiences that those on Newstart were already living with before this mess:

“they’re university students pulling their hair out over whether to skip their exam or interview … young parents trying to juggle doctor appointments and school pickup … sick old people … unemployed older workers … made redundant … choosing between food and rent, skipping meals, shivering through nights with the heater off because they’ve used up their $40 a day allowance on public transport or petrol to get to job interviews” — Josh Butler

And don’t forget about the quarter of Newstart recipients with significant disabilities who are somehow ineligible for the disability pension who have been living in poverty and unable to afford things like food, baby formula, or hygiene products.

It’s even common practice for Centrelink to request proof of someone’s permanent injuries (amputations, blindness, etc) every year or so — just in case there’s been a miracle.

Those on Newstart and other Centrelink payments have always been just as varied as the people lining up now. Yes, just like you, me, and every Australian who lost their jobs this year.

These are the people who have been experiencing this situation for years. Even back in 2015 people were complaining about the state of Centrelink. In January of that year, there were 3,896 complaints.

And this was before the robodebt fiasco that resulted in a possible 2030 deaths by February 2020.

In 2017, Centrelink call wait times were revealed. At first glance the results were reasonable; the average wait time for a Centrelink call was 15 minutes and 9 seconds.

For anybody who called Centrelink during that time, the figure seemed questionable at best.

The truth was that, in 2017, 42.4 per cent of callers were unable to get into the phone queue.

Instead, those callers were met with an engaged tone. The line was full.

Callers who got through to the automated system may have hung up without their issue being resolved. Centrelink considered it a successful call.

Then, the really sticky point behind these numbers, if a call was answered and transferred, the clock was reset. So, in reality, you could be passed around to multiple departments with a 15 minute wait time between each one, while still being labelled a success to Centrelink.

In 2018, Centrelink insisted that the calls were still within its average 16-minute target, despite callers telling ABC that it was common to wait for over an hour.

Two years ago people couldn’t get their Centrelink questions answered. Two years ago the website was crashing. Two years ago the phone line was full. Two years ago people were being denied access to welfare payments despite being unable to work.

It was no surprise to them the mess that ensued when 100,000 people tried to get in touch with Centrelink.

With that history what else could we have expected of this welfare system?

It was already overloaded, unprepared, and putting people below the poverty line before the massive influx of jobless Australians.

And it was designed this way.

A poor welfare system keeps marginalised groups in poverty, and more tellingly, it keeps them compliant.

There have been studies done, proof is shown, that welfare does not cause laziness.

People on welfare are not suddenly overcome with the desire to sit at home and contribute nothing to society — and don’t forget all of the people with disabilities who are contributing more than they physically can just to get a meagre payment that’s below the poverty line.

It has even been revealed that job training programs have actually decreased the likelihood of a person finding work. This might be a mystery to a lot of people, but if you have ever taken part in a job seeker program through Centrelink you probably won’t be surprised.

So, no. Welfare doesn’t cause dole bludgers. But does it cause dependency? Yes, if the system is broken.

If families can’t afford to feed their children healthy food, purchase school supplies, pay for standard internet for schoolwork, even participate in extracurricular activities (think sports, homework clubs, art classes), how are their children supposed to fair better?

There are no bootstraps to be pulled on.

It’s possible that people will now begin to understand that it’s not so easy to sit back and receive welfare payments, to fund an extravagant lifestyle off of the average taxpayer.

There has been some compassion in the wake of this, with comments being made that “it seems like the system is designed to frustrate and depress you until you just give up”. But this realisation comes too late to the thousands of people who have taken their own lives, or come close to it, at the hands of a greedy government slashing at an already dying welfare system.

But there are a lot more who have fiercely stuck to their claims that it’s the poor who are the problem.

“People who are already unemployed and their circumstance hasn't changed [sic] don't have to line up, go online or stress …and they are actually going to be in a better position because of this virus.”

“It’s unfair of the government to give job seekers and new start a pay rise and public housing free rent but people like myself have to deal with Centrelink Because we have lost our jobs”

“I work too hard for my money and I get nothing … Everyone gets it but us.”

“I can’t understand why ppl on Centrelink are getting more money so so wrong.”

But what more can we expect when Australia’s Prime Minister — a man who called himself “A Strong Welfare Cop” — simply implores people to “be Australian” in the face of a global pandemic?

The government can no longer lie about the state of the welfare system. We need to hold them accountable and make living above the poverty line possible for all Australians.

Freelance writer and proofreader for hire.

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