A True Safety Net? Welfare Rights and Domestic Violence

By Asli Yilmaz

Despite ongoing reforms, domestic or family violence remains a scourge across Australia. The number of reported incidents increased by more than 50 percent between March 2012 – March 2016. At least one in four Australian women are affected by domestic or family violence; on average, one woman is killed by domestic violence every week.

Domestic violence is a significant causal factor for homelessness for women, regardless of their economic status. This is based on findings that 80 – 90 percent of women in violent marriages experience financial abuse, resulting in economic dependence. Frequently, the perpetrators of domestic violence have a strong desire to control their female partner, including the family finances. Combined with severe shortages in public or affordable housing, this lack of financial independence traps women and their children in violent homes.

A universal basic income (UBI) may provide women in these situations with an exit strategy. A UBI is often defined as a regular, unconditional payment for adult citizens of a given country or geographic area, regardless of their gender, cultural background, economic or employment status, age, assets, or health. The purpose of a UBI is to act as a safety net by providing enough funds to afford basic needs. Of course, a UBI would help more than just those seeking to escape domestic violence. Recent research has demonstrated that a weekly income of $895.22 is required to keep a family with two children housed and fed. A sole parent working part-time, with a child, requires a minimum of $830 a week. Set at the correct level, a UBI could help lift the estimated 2.9 million Australians currently living below the poverty threshold.

Many governments around the world have begun investigating the possibilities of implementing a UBI. Several pilot projects in countries including Canada, Finland, and the Netherlands are currently underway. While these pilot projects have only taken place on a small scale, there have been interesting results. A project in Brazil showed a clear improvement on the community’s quality of life and relief from poverty.

The costs of implementing the UBI should not be underestimated, but the financial benefits are very real. The combined health, administration and social welfare costs attached to family violence have reached an estimated $21.7 billion a year, with estimates suggesting a total cost of $323.4 billion in the next thirty years. Not only women, but Australia as a whole also bears the economic burden of domestic or family violence.

 

Here in Australia, it is time to start thinking about the possibilities and benefits of implementing a UBI scheme. A UBI designed to overcome the many obstacles which currently prevent marginalized groups, including Indigenous women, younger women, women with disability, women living in rural and remote areas, and women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, from accessing the resources necessary to escape violent situations, would have myriad benefits. Currently, waiting periods for benefits and concerns that applying for assistance may reveal their location to abusive partners, and the many strings attached to welfare payments, create a hostile environment for those who need our help.  A UBI, paid to every person, without means testing or restriction, would at least eliminate financial constraint as a reason not to leave a violent situation. 

 

A secure, regular income will ensure economic freedom and independence, as well as promote dignity and competency. These essential qualities for women and girls should be recognised within all marriages and partnerships. Amongst domestic violence, unequal employment opportunities and gender pay gap thwart the ideology that women are independent income earners who have complete and sole authority over their finances. With an increasing risk of an industrial revolution, now is the time to move our country forward to financial equality.

 

 

La Trobe Academic