IAN WEBSTER. Welfare sanctions.

To save $204.7 million, the Government plans to impose draconian sanctions on those needing income support who miss appointments, or work interviews, or who don’t take up the jobs proposed for them. That can’t be the real reason, since the dollar savings count for nothing against the inestimable human and economic costs of these impediments. So much for “mutual obligation”. 

Does anyone ask why appointments are not kept or interviews attended? The Government assumes the people needing social security are shiftless and “work shy”. Travelling to endless and barren appointments, the process is soul-destroying, practically difficult and often at high personal costs. The telephone, “we apologise for the inconvenience but we are facing high numbers of customer calls….”  and then…. the line goes dead. I have watched the frustration and anger of homeless people as they attempt to speak to a Centrelink officer. The tone and body language in these interactions is commonly humiliating and dispiriting– questions asked and assumptions made.

The pervading culture is that people needing income support do not want to work and don’t deserve to be supported. An attitude which says more about us, than them. In my experience as a physician, more than anything these people want to work with some sense of value and dignity; they want to be able to live a contributing life, like the rest of us.

Punishing sanctions add to the difficulties that people out of work face; they are demotivating not motivating.

There are many groups in the population who need and have entitlements to income support – universally amongst the homeless, almost universal amongst those living with psychotic illnesses, a high proportion of those with continuing physical pain – the list could go on. Many of those out of work and needing help are impaired in some way or have major obstacles to overcome – single parent families, families without accommodation, usually headed by a mother.

The opioid epidemic in the US caused that nation to realise it has an epidemic of “diseases of despair”–  opioid addiction, alcohol diseases and injuries and suicide – to which we would add –  ICE addiction, mental illness, obesity, unrelenting and unresolved symptoms such as chronic pain and complex disabilities.

The sanctions on those out of work and needing social support will further impoverish their lives and add to the “diseases of the despair”. Rather than saving $204.7 million, the community and public health and social services will be further overwhelmed by the diseases and conditions arising out of modern despair – opioid and other addictions, alcohol diseases in injuries, suicides, mental illness, obesity, unrelenting symptomatic conditions such as chronic pain and increasingly complex disabilities and predicaments.

Ian Webster is Emeritus Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of New South Wales.

First published in Croakey 19 January 2018.

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Ian W Webster AO is Emeritus Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine of the University of New South Wales. He has worked as a physician in public and regional hospitals in Australia and UK and in NGOs dealing with homelessness, alcohol and drug problems and mental illness.

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