Government unveils harsh welfare changes for single parents and people with disabilities

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Craig Hall lives with a diagnosed mental illness and receives a Disability Support Pension. He’s smart, hard-working and keen to get part-time work. Although his work experience is scant, he’s qualified in food handling and applies for kitchen jobs in Melbourne several times a week. But given the choice of hiring a worker with a disability or one without, the employer’s answer always seems to be the same: “There’s the door.”

Undaunted, 42-year-old Hall moves on to the next low-paid “opportunity.” Some employers consider giving him a trial until he checks that he’ll actually be paid — at a union-scale wage.

In May, Prime Minister John Howard unveiled a “Welfare to Work” package of changes to pensions for people with disabilities and single parents. These were part of the annual budget proposal, which also included enormous tax cuts for the rich. Peter Dutton, the Minister for Workforce Participation, argued that “people’s self-esteem is much greater if they are off welfare and into work” — a transition that the new program, presumably, would facilitate.

That was the spin. The question was, would this really help Hall and others like him?

Living on less. Australia’s old-age and disability pensions were introduced in 1909, and a pension for sole parents was added in 1967. But hundreds of changes have been made to the social welfare system since the mid-1970s, all of them cutting benefits or restricting eligibility.

Howard’s budget announced in May, now passed, features some of the harshest “reforms” yet. They will be implemented starting July 1, 2006, to the detriment of an estimated 300,000 people. They affect all welfare recipients of working age, but impact people receiving disability and sole- parent pensions the most gravely.

Name aside, the government’s plan is not a welfare-to-work strategy but a welfare-to-welfare strategy moving people from one payment type onto a lower one, cynically called Newstart. Among its barbs:

• Single mothers and fathers whose youngest child has turned six and people with disabilities assessed as capable of working 15 hours per week will be required to look for part-time employment and will get $20 per week less than currently.

• When paid work is obtained, welfare payments will be cut more sharply than is the case now.

• Payments will be cut off entirely at a lower level of earned income. This will also cause many people to lose reduced rates for things like healthcare.

Vicious and vindictive. Those already receiving welfare payments will still be paid the old rate — for now. There are several Catch-22s, however.

People on the Sole Parent Pension frequently move on and off welfare. If a woman attempts reconciliation with a former partner and it doesn’t work out, she will only be eligible for the new, lower payment when she next makes a claim. The same would occur if she got a full-time but temporary contract job.

Payments also can be suspended for making a mistake. A mentally ill person who misses a job interview, for example, faces eight weeks without income.

Instead of threats and coercion, job-seekers need assistance finding suitable employment, access to affordable childcare, training, workplace modifications at times, and an end to the sometimes subtle but all-too-real discrimination against people with disabilities and sole parents in the workforce.

Howard’s Newstart doesn’t offer aid to people looking for jobs, but takes it away. It eliminates, for example, extra assistance for those who are studying. And woefully underfunded welfare agencies who help job-hunters will not get enough resources to cope with the increased demand.

Welfare cuts mean pay cuts for all. Strip away the hollow rhetoric about the dignity of work, and what remains is a policy that will cut incomes to those most in need while providing the lowest-paying employers with a conscripted labour force. Welfare payments provide a floor below which wages cannot be forced. By slashing social security, the government opens the way to drive down wages for everyone.

Resistance to the proposals is coming from feminists, from church groups on the front line of delivering emergency relief to the poor, welfare rights bodies, and disability organisations.

This is important, but unions must also take up the fight. Welfare to Work slices at the very heart of the right to a decent income and job conditions, just as Howard’s anti-union workplace reforms do. (See “Frontline Unionists Speak Out Against John Howard’s Grab Bag of Anti-Worker Laws” at www.socialism.com, FS Vol. 26 No. 3.)

The Australian Council of Trade Unions is organising a November 15 National Day of Action protesting the new anti-worker laws. Out of this day should develop an ongoing campaign of union action which takes up the demand for a living wage for people on welfare as an integral part of the struggle to protect everyone’s rights and living standards. The government is going after all workers, and linking the struggle to defend union rights and welfare rights can unite our class and make us unstoppable.

Subscribe to the twice-yearly Australian Freedom Socialist Bulletin by sending $12 (Aus) or $15 (U.S.) to Feminist Education Assoc., PO Box 266, West Brunswick, VIC 3055, Australia. Outside the U.S. and Australia, send an International Bank Draft for $20 (Aus).

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