The strategy behind the federal government’s increase to the jobseeker payment is crystal clear: Scott Morrison will say he is the first leader in almost 30 years to increase the rate of welfare for unemployed people. Never mind that it is only by less than $3.60 per day. Damned if it keeps people in poverty; too bad that it won’t even recover lost ground since the payment was decoupled from (flat) wages growth in 1997.
Already, the new figure represents a $100 per fortnight cut in the rate, as the coronavirus supplement of $150 is due to end on 31 March.
The Morrison government will consider the political issue solved and brand as ungrateful anyone who dares question it.
The prime minister thinks only in the hollow terms of political problems. Humanity does not figure into the equation. Worse, for a man who thinks he knows the answer he has never suffered the real problem. Neither he nor almost anyone in his government has ever had to do the threadbare arithmetic of blunt survival. Never had to make a decision to skip meals or medications to feed a family. Never had a single, sudden expense trigger a five-year debt spiral. There have been no back-to-back years of punishing stress which exacts its toll not only on the mind but on the body, too. His children have not been raised in the kind of penury that scientific studies have shown actually reduce the volume and surface area of brain matter in young people, by as much as 20%. These shrinkages of the brain occur not because of a lack of access to nourishing food (though these are also problems). Nor do they occur because of poorer access to health, dentistry and quality education, although these are all issues, too. I want this to sink in so read it slowly: the studies show our brains fade away precisely because of the stress that poverty breeds in the home. It is the mental and physical exertion that does it; the ambient terror of not knowing how the day will unfold or if you will make it through it. Young children absorb this persistent anxiety in their own bodies, the way our teeth collect and preserve caesium isotopes after radioactive exposure. None of these things has ever applied to Scott Morrison.
The problem is not necessarily that he has not lived this life, but that he refuses to accept the testimony of the millions who have. Millions. It reaches further down, into the public service, where often well-meaning people are forced to reduce the rich and complicated human tapestry to mere budget constraints and policy priorities. For those who have not lived the life of gritty survival, it is difficult to really understand the consequences of enduring scarcity. These aftershocks bleed into every area of government service delivery and into every budget.
Even if you do not have a heart for such things, the head demands sober analysis. For example, the industrial-scale automation of Centrelink debts — hundreds of thousands of which never existed — cost the government more than $2bn in repayments and squandered administrative time. It shunted people into the appalling mental health care system, itself underfunded, and where crisis compounded family breakdown or neglect, the disastrous and unlawful program funnelled people into the police, justice and child protection system.
It is important to say what ought to be obvious here: some members of the government, and others elsewhere in public life, believe that all of this dysfunction springs from the moral centre of people in poverty rather than understanding that the conditions a daily, often hourly, effort to simply exist is the engine room of discord. Frequently, those at the top of the ladder are simply projecting. The preoccupation of the middle and the upper classes with those who have nothing has been, for hundreds of years at least, based on the peculiar notion that the poor were as greedy and lazy as they were. The reality is that few work harder than those who have no choice. Few are kinder.
Bertrand Russell, in his essay on leisure, notes that the policing of the lower classes is pre-industrial and has no place in a modern society. Yet that is exactly what we find in the bruising ratcheting up of so-called ‘mutual obligations.’ In an economic crisis that persists, the unemployed will go back to mandatory requirements to apply for 20 jobs a month, the government announced on Tuesday, in total ignorance of the fact there are more people looking for jobs than there are job openings. There is no reform of the disgraceful job services system which chews billions of dollars of taxpayer funds as a sort of corporate money-laundering program for your taxes. Providers of these ‘services’ do real harm. They harass, punish and control. Where dignity is wrung from the people in the system, so follows confidence and hope.
And now, employment services minister Michaelia Cash has announced a special hotline where employers can dob in job applicants who turn them down for work. For a government that has revealed its striking callousness toward those who have been allegedly sexually assaulted, abused or bullied even in its own ranks, what chance the totally powerless unemployed when bosses retreat to the ministerial red phone?
This is not five-dimensional chess. Morrison’s decision is not a win for the unemployed. It is not an historic rise in the benefit rate. This is a tightening of the screws.
When you hurt people, you are not teaching them to be good citizens. You are only hurting them.
Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter. He is the author of One Hundred Years of Dirt, On Money and My Year of Living Vulnerably, to be released in March 2021.