The ‘Right to Humiliate’: Basic income and the dignity of welfare recipients

Photo credit: Leonard J. Matthews ‘Oppression’

By Caitlin O’Gorman

The federal government’s move to introduce mandatory drug testing for welfare recipients is yet another attempt to criminalise, punish and stigmatise those receiving income support payments. The trial would see Newstart and Youth Allowance recipients in Mandurah, Logan and Bankstown tested for illegal substances. Those who test positive will have eighty percent of their payment quarantined on a cashless welfare card for twenty-four months. Those who refuse to undergo testing will have their payments stopped immediately.

Whilst Malcolm Turnbull suggested that the measure is ‘about love’, the trial is indicative of a program intended to police and punish welfare recipients. The policy comes in the wake of government crackdowns on welfare fraud, a directive poignantly titled ‘Taskforce Integrity’, which includes ‘optical surveillance’ of recipients’ ebay and social media accounts. Speaking on welfare compliance, Human Services Minister Alan Tudge stated that ‘long-term welfare dependency is a poison on capable people’.

Paternalistic approaches to welfare, such as mandatory drug testing, are at best ineffective, at worst, dangerous. Individual worth is calculated (literally) by one’s economic productivity within the formal labour market. This creates a social and moral hierarchy that demarcates the ‘othered’ welfare recipient from the rest of the population. Recipients are deemed incapable and undeserving of individual agency, thereby stigmatising an already marginalised and vulnerable group. Further, it denies broader systematic and structural inequalities that produce poverty at the community and individual level by placing blame on the individual. To this effect, members of the medical profession and welfare groups have opposed the new trial, stating that the measure is ineffective and discriminatory.

The measure also perpetuates, in Foucaldian terms, a ‘spectacle of humiliation’ that denigrates those experiencing poverty by denying their dignity, humanity and fundamental human rights. The proposed measure reinforces the notion that the state has the right to humiliate those deemed ‘undeserving’ or ‘unworthy’ of assistance, by denying their right to dignity, social security and a standard of adequate living. A stark reminder of this is a recent complaint to the United Nations made by Melbourne woman, Juanita McLaren, regarding cuts to parenting payments.

A recent report by the UNSW Social Policy Research Centre and ACOSS has found that current income support payments are inadequate and fall below the poverty line. The research found that the Newstart Allowance falls short by $96 a week for a single person, $58 a week for a couple with one child and $126 a week for a couple with two children. People living in poverty experience financial stress, deprivation, housing stress and food insecurity. The perception that recipients of welfare are ‘leaners’ is ideologically driven and demonstrably untrue, given the evidence that the lived experience of poverty is marked by struggle.

The policing of welfare recipients through strict compliance activities makes this struggle even harder. The administration costs associated with policing compliance activities could be redirected to support, not punish, recipients. For example, New Zealand’s 2015 drug-testing trial cost around one million dollars to test eight thousand recipients. Twenty-two returned positive tests. This is clearly an inefficient use of public funds, designed to placate taxpayers at the expense of individuals for whom such payments are supposed to assist. A Universal Basic Income (UBI) or some variation of it, could provide a meaningful alternative to the current social welfare scheme. The provision of a basic monthly income payment to all Australian residents, regardless of employment status, would challenge conceptions of the ‘undeserving’ poor by recognising and upholding the inherent dignity and rights of all citizens. Under such a scheme, recipients would not be required to engage in compliance or job-seeking activities and would be free to use the income as they choose.

A UBI has the capacity to provide a more cost efficient, simplified and restorative social welfare model. Government expenditure on social security and welfare in 2013-2014 reached approximately $156 billion. Under a UBI scheme, these funds could have been used to provide each Australian resident with an income of $714 per month, without any additional government spending. At $8,568 annually, this would not alone comprise an adequate basic income above the poverty line. However, it is indicative of the possibilities of a broken social welfare scheme that is punishing those it was intended to assist.

Caitlin O’Gorman is in her final year of a Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Arts degree at La Trobe University and is undertaking an internship with Australian Lawyers for Human Rights. She is currently conducting research into the applicability of a Universal Basic Income in Australia, for the Women and Girls’ Rights Subcommittee.

La Trobe