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Changing our Welfare Mindset

By Loz Lawrey

There is no issue that better highlights the polarisation of opinion in Australian society than welfare.

Even though the rich benefit from “hidden welfare” in the form of tax breaks, negative gearing, tax minimisation schemes, paid parental leave etc, the demonisation of welfare recipients always lands squarely on the shoulders of those most in need of real support and assistance.

The unemployed, the elderly, the disabled, the sick, indigenous Australians, war veteransthe list of society’s wounded is a long one. Sadly, those who dwell at the more vulnerable end of our social spectrum tend to be the very ones under constant attack from both government and media.

Who hasn’t noticed the dismissive, judgmental rhetoric coming from government ministers using labels such as “leaners” or “welfare cheats” to marginalise and condemn those who need help? Every statement we hear from the federal government implies that welfare recipients are lazy dole-bludgers playing the system and stealing taxpayer dollars. With media collusion over time, this patently false perception has taken hold in the minds of many working Australians.

When the March Australia movement was approached by welfare recipient Keith Davis to help organise a National Welfare March, the idea struck a chord with many of our volunteers.

Here was something positive we could do to help to focus attention on the need for positive change in attitudes to and treatment of welfare recipients. The National Welfare March aims to raise public awareness of the punitive nature of our welfare system and demand a fairer welfare response from government.

Over the past few weeks we’ve come to understand more about attitudes to welfare in our community. One thing we’ve learned is that those who hold negative perceptions of welfare and its recipients are often ignorant of the facts on the ground.

It’s very easy to dismiss people as bludgers if you yourself are working and can pay your own way. Why waste time learning about “losers on welfare” when you’re financially successful and a “winner” in your own mind?

Since it came to office the Abbott government has been hard at work fragmenting Australian society as it singles out minority groups for demonisation. Welfare recipients are portrayed as “cheats” and Muslims as likely “terrorists”. Other groups such as victims of domestic violence aren’t overtly attacked, rather simply ignored. Refugee asylum seekers are hidden from view.

A blatant “divide and conquer” strategy is being implemented. Abbott uses fear of “otherness” to garner support, telling a nervous electorate he will keep us safe from the dangers he has conjured up and told us we should fear.

Sadly, not everyone in our social democracy favours inclusion and social support based on the concept of “collective provision”. I have been stunned at comments such as these appearing on our National Welfare March Facebook page:

“So let’s get this correct. The least productive in society are marching to demand “more” at the expense of the most productive in society? Don’t bite the hand that literally feeds you.”

or

“I simply prefer a world where I keep the wealth that I generate. If and when I’m feeling generous, that is why we have a little thing called charity.”

This person goes on to say that those who require welfare payments are “fiscally incompetent or irresponsible”, that they have an “entitlement attitude” and that “people are poor because they make poor financial decisions, it really is this simple.“

There it is. This person could be one of Abbott’s cabinet ministers. Call it fascist, sociopathic, neoliberal, arch-conservative, hard-rightwing, whatever, it’s a mindset that must change.

It must change because it is based on lies and false assumptions. It is an arrogant, unfair and elitist worldview which dismisses as irrelevant the poorer, more disadvantaged sectors of our society.

In Australia it’s a struggle to survive on the minimum wage. On current levels of Newstart allowance it’s impossible to survive without extra charity from family or social support agencies. There is no “security” in our social security system. Being on welfare means being sentenced to a stress-filled life of struggle lived under constant threat of the possible termination of benefits.

By raising welfare entitlements to a level closer to the minimum wage the punitive aspect of our safety net would be removed. The resulting improvement in wellbeing would have positive flow-on effects for all of us. Crime rates would lessen. More money would circulate through our economy.

Casting welfare recipients as “other” or “lesser” belies the fact that we are all, now and then, welfare recipients of one kind or another. Even rich mining magnates benefit from tax concessions and industry incentives.

Welfare issues affect every sector and age group in our society; if not you, then someone you know. Most people have dealings with Centrelink and often Job Services Australia (Job Network) at some time in their lives.

Many of us are only one pay-packet ahead of financial insolvency. Lose your job, have an accident or perhaps a health issue and within weeks you may lose your home. Sometimes relationship or family breakdown, even homelessness, can follow.

In Australia the word welfare has come to be associated with laziness and social and financial failure. While in the odd case this may be true, it is clearly an unfair and false generalisation spruiked by those who can’t be bothered to inform themselves of the real facts around welfare on the ground.

After all, if you’ve never spent a thankless year unsuccessfully chasing work while your savings and asset base dwindles, how are you entitled to even comment on welfare issues? You’ve never been there, on the wrong end of the stick. If you have an opinion, what is it based on?

I myself have been on the wrong side of the welfare counter. It was not a pleasant place to be. Years ago I worked full-time for six months on a work-for-the-dole program in my local shire council offices alongside others on full pay.

Under this carrot-and-stick program I was promised possible work in the future (carrot) and threatened with loss of welfare payments (stick) if I didn’t comply. I made the same commitment to my employer, the same effort as other employees, but couldn’t pay my way or support my family. We struggled to pay the bills as our debts increased and my self-esteem diminished.

The memory of those times is very vivid for me and fans a flame of empathy for all welfare recipients, because I myself have been there. I know the soul-destroying experience of being stuck in that Centrelink queue.

It’s always easy to dismiss others with a few harsh words of judgment and elevate ourselves in our own minds, but attitudes to welfare provision which are rooted in ignorance and lack of human empathy can only be changed by educating and informing.

Perhaps the only way concerned Australians can arrest the Abbott-driven stampede towards the social abyss is to publicise the true facts behind every government policy, every action this government takes. How else can we cut through the spin and show the world that the emperor has no clothes?

Let’s pierce the membrane of lies and and misrepresentation behind which the government hides its true agenda. Peoples’ attitudes are very much informed and shaped by the mass media they’re exposed to. If we’re being fed a diet of obfuscation and misinformation then we’re being misled, some might even say brainwashed.

The March Australia National Welfare March rallies aim to change the public’s negative perceptions and end the demonisation of people who simply need help. It’s time to restore a sense of balance and social justice to the welfare paradigm. Our nation must embrace all its citizens equally. We must refuse to allow this federal government to divide and conquer us.

We know that some Australians don’t care. The Abbott government is doing its best to ensure that many more will stop caring. This is our challenge. How do we change the mindset of a nation? We work to inform the nation.

If you have questions or wish to volunteer or know more about the National Welfare March to be held in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth/Fremantle, Wodonga (Vic) and Hobart on the weekend of 11 -12 July, please contact March Australia at:
Email: info@marchaustralia.com
Website: marchaustralia.com
Twitter: @WelfareMarch

Rallies Locations

 

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23 comments

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  1. diannaart

    Melbourne?

  2. Rob031

    Thanks Loz Lowrey. That was a really excellent and well-articulated article.
    I’m not as optimistic as you seem to be about it all being down to bad/lack of education in so far as how to wind back such attitudes.
    What you’re describing is a sub-set of intolerance in general – which includes Racism and Ethnocentrism.
    Some hold such expressed attitudes simply because that’s what they’ve learned from the family and social group. Given wider knowledge and experience they can come to view things in a kinder way. So education campaigns will help these people.
    The prejudiced ones that really worry me are the haters. It’s not just about learning rubbish; it’s more about lapping the rubbish up because they are emotionally driven (eg by Ressentiment) need some group to feel superior to and to have punished.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ressentiment
    It’s a low mongrel act to appeal to and draw upon this ‘energy’ to gain and cling on to office as we have seen with the Abbott led government. They are acting like Hitler and Co. in this respect in the mid 1930’s.

  3. The AIM Network

    diannaart. I’m not sure but maybe they have something about Melbourne on their Facebook page. Or it could be that Melbourne will be at a later date.

  4. diannaart

    Thank you The Aim Network

  5. iggy648

    I’m tempted to track down the next person who refers to the age pension as welfare, and sue them for defamation. I have had a social contract with governments of every political persuasion throughout my lifetime, that if I paid my fair share of taxes, the government would put aside a portion of those taxes to pay for a pension after I retired at age 65.The superannuation system that we have today is exactly the same, except that payments are now paid to private companies instead of to the government. Nobody calls that welfare. So please, anyone who persists in referring to my age pension as welfare, stop driving on the roads that my taxes have paid for over the last 45 years.

  6. Phi

    I’m right with you iggy648 – I hear you loud and clear. My wife and I are aged pensioners. We each started working at 15 years of age – our combined work lives totalled 100 years – we were lucky as unemployment was very low in those years so we didn’t need employment support, but we were more than happy that people who needed assistance got that assistance from the tax base. We worked menial jobs and later skilled jobs and raised a family paying taxes with virtually zero deductions, and now we are being demonised and stigmatised by a reprehensible, arrogant and thoroughly unAustralian government.

  7. Phi

    Thanks Rob031 for the link to ‘Ressentiment’ – there is substance in your argument.

    I agree with your sentiment on Abbott’s approach as “a low mongrel act’ – that captures the Abbott modus operandi succinctly as it’s stated in terms that Abbott well understands since he speaks that language.

  8. iggy648

    Phi, I think Australia owes a lot to people like you and your wife, and I’m betting no-one ever said thank you. So .. Thank you.

  9. Andreas Bimba

    Australia can easily have zero unemployment within a few years.

    Greater national self sufficiency, moderate tariff protection for our manufacturing industry, MMT economics, Japanese style METI economic development policy, renewable energy and development of a sustainable economy, public housing, infrastructure investment, environmental protection, fair tax policy, free education, much more public and private research and development, efficient health care and a fair social support system should be our nations policy goals.

    Only the Australian Greens can deliver this vision for Australia.

  10. Lindsay Stafford

    One of the problems associated with much of the rhetoric is the use of that word “welfare”. It is a negative word that engenders the concept of undeserving. It is an economic rational term designed to denigrate, to divide and to humiliate.
    The previous term “Social Security” was abandoned by Howard in 1998, probably because it tends to engender a concept of society and the common responsibilities of living in a society.

  11. Wally

    Phi that is a very good point you make about past taxes covering the cost of your pension and the same could be said about Loz Lawrey when he was unemployed. Loz had been paying taxes prior to being unemployed so how can anyone consider him as a bludger or a liability?

    The other point you make that many overlook is that you started work doing menial tasks and then advanced as you gained skills. Unlike nowadays where they go straight from secondary school to uni and then they enter the workforce with no experience and take the better paid jobs. The pathway to advance through the workplace is very limited nowadays so there are less well paid jobs open to those who have not gone to uni and TAFE courses to provide education aligned with industry requirements are limited and very expensive.

    I do not believe the system can improve unless we stop school leavers going straight on to uni, we need to make it mandatory to prove students have an aptitude for the field they intend to undertake higher education in. So before becoming an engineer they should complete a trade in that discipline and many industry problems would be resolved. Firstly less education would be required due to previous experience, the standard of engineers would improve and an avenue to advance through industry would be available for older/injured tradesman. Very few tradesman exist over 50 who are not carrying some sort of injury or disability but their options are very limited. Do what you have always done and suffer the pain, take a lesser paid less demanding (boring) job at a trade counter and/or give up and end up on the dole queue.

  12. PamelaK

    @ Wally – I have a teenager and know many teenagers they would jump at the opportunity to take up a trade, but there just aren’t any entry level positions like there used to be, many would far prefer to be out in the workforce and using practical skills and are unsuited and not inclind to academia… BUT NOW they have a requirement directed by the Government to be EARNING OR LEARNING, they have no choice but to enroll in higher education, even if they don’t want to, to be able to live… IT IS THE PERFECT PLACE TO HIDE THE TRUE EXTENT OF UNEMPLOYMENT for the young. And that is what I believe is behind this push by the last two Governments for the young to continue on education. The low paid apprenticeship jobs are far higher than the measly youth allowance… $281.00 p/f is all they get… this is another misconception put out by the Government that the young wont take low paying or entry level jobs… if they were available they would be lining up for them… my daughter has applied for everything including a check out chick… she was told at the group interview of 300 that they had 2000 applicants… they only interviewed 300, she missed out, when you are competing with those types of odds what hope have the young and inexperienced got. Some she was going up against had 6 years experience… yes unemployment is that bad.

    Further the Work For the Dole Program is useless, they do not get training, they are used for the jobs that the trained professionals do not want to do… dig holes, move garbage, make tea, clean the store room, clean the toilets and it does nothing to help them get a job… it is just slave labour… and then they are moved to the next placement & out of there $281.00 p/f they have to pay for transport or petrol to get to there lousy Slave Labour (WFD) placement. As of 1st July the whole $20.80 to cover travel is being removed.

  13. miriamenglish

    One of the things that bugs me about the whole social security payments question is that it is always framed around money, as two sides of a debate. One side slagging off at people on the dole or pensions or disability as parasites who are less than those with a good income, and the other side that they are unfortunates who should be pitied because they have the misfortune to be stuck in a situation where they missed the opportunity to earn a good income. I know the latter group mean well, but it still annoys me no end.

    Some of us have skills that don’t include making money, yet society depends upon us every bit as much as it does on those with plenty of money. I am an artist. Throughout the ages artists have generally died broke. I’m also a writer. They too generally have a terrible record for making money. I’m also a computer programmer. Many computer programmers do quite well at earning an income (I did for a while, until the dotcom crash), but many more never really make ends meet.

    There is no shame in not being the kind of person who makes money. Accumulating wealth is just one skill. There are plenty of others — many of them far more important. Money should never be allowed to become the single measure for worth. Happiness, knowledge, friendship, time, love, wisdom, serenity, ability, choice, health, freedom, intelligence, creativity, communication, humor, art… none of these things depend upon money, and in the case of some, money is positively antagonistic (for example, friendship is made more difficult by money because the very wealthy person never knows whether someone likes them or their money). It is very dangerous to treat money as the only thing of value. To do so actually evicerates our society of genuine wealth.

    Society depends upon artists, musicians, writers, computer programmers and all kinds of creative people. Without them our culture wouldn’t even exist. Ask any artist or musician why they do what they do and they will usually admit they don’t do it for the money. Of course it would be nice to have money because our society is (somewhat cruelly) set up so that silly trading tokens are required in order to survive, but money isn’t the driving force for creativity… in fact it barely registers.

    I’m very lucky. I can live quite comfortably below the poverty line — less so today than I used to, but I still manage. I don’t own a car, I live far out in the country, love to eat vegetables and don’t eat meat (except for a tin of sardines once a week), don’t use any drugs (not even tea or coffee), am perfectly happy with secondhand clothes, keep my shopping down to once every couple of months, and enjoy being on my own. For me, social security payments are freeing. I can get on with writing books, creating artwork, building computer programs, and learning. More than anything I learn, and learn, and learn.

    I would still like to bring in a good income — the money would be wonderful — but the lack of it won’t stop me from making what I think is a valuable contribution to society. I work very hard writing short stories and novels that attempt to explain extremely important topics in story form. I think this is a useful service and I hope that some day (unfortunately, probably after I’m dead) people will realise how worthwhile they are. (My stories are at http://miriam-english.org )

    Social security should be seen as a useful strategy by society to support those who have non-monetary services to perform for us all. Some of those people may be volunteers at local charities, or grandparents looking after children, or kids looking after grandparents, or some kind of artist. Some people may have no obvious function, but like the ants we should nevertheless see the advantage in having them. Ant nests keep a large part (about a third, I think) of their population in reserve, doing nothing. These ants don’t work. They lounge around, waiting. When a calamity occurs they are called into action and the colony is able to easily survive. We should be doing the same. It make very good sense to keep a part of the population aside, always learning new skills, and ready to advance our society when the world changes. It also functions as a support and reward for people whose work life has completed.

    We should look on the creative people, the caretakers, eternal students, reserves, and retired as insurance for our future. They shouldn’t be spit on or pitied. They are our safeguard. They should be paid a comfortable income that lets them work to improve our society to the best of their ability, or in the case of retired folk gives workers incentive to improve all of society, knowing they’ll benefit from it later. People taking part in the social security net should not be put on starvation drip-feed. It is incredibly short-sighted to do so. They are an important part of society.

  14. darrel nay

    To read miriamenglish is to realise what a real leader could be. A beautiful realist.

    thankyou

  15. stephentardrew

    Agreed Miriamenglish:

    The universe and evolution provide a whole range of necessary personality types, skills and experiences to maintain diversity and it is those that are often on the periphery that develop alternative lifestyles and ways of thinking that maintain variety and creativity. People do not create their realities they are a complex inter-weaving of a whole lot of genetic and environmental contingencies often beyond the control of the individual. Diversity is the mother of invention whereas conformity is the child of ossification and stagnation. In this respect I admire Jacques Fresco’s cash free society of equality mapped out in the Venus Project. His engineering approach to sustainability is exemplary, based upon self-replicating technology, while it is empirically based founded upon his philosophy is one of justice, equity and utilitarian distribution.

    There is nothing wrong with a good dose of idealism and the freedom to explore a whole range of alternative lifestyles free from unwarranted judgment, blame and retribution. However this takes a great amount of compassion, love and a solid grasp of science, logic and reasoning to build progressive societies that cater for all. Evolution is about diversity and adaptation not narrowness and monotone ideological dogmatism. Intra species cooperation and community is as important as inter species balance and maintenance of an environment in reasonably manageable equilibrium.

    We must overcome our autonomic drive to selfishness otherwise the environment is going to have the last say. To my mind aesthetics, beauty, love and ethics go together allowing our subjective selves to explore the vast subjective matrix of inner possibility while sustaining and maintaining an environment in equilibrium. We have not yet twigged to the fact that ti is what we feel internally that matters not what we possess externally, Fulfill basic needs while opening up the space for inner creativity, compassion and love. Possession is narrow and selfish whereas creativity is subjectively generative and literally maps out to infinity in abstract subjective space. There are infinitely more things than mice and men can posses.

    It is the openness of creativity that leads to diversity not conformity and monotone sameness.

  16. miriamenglish

    Darrel, thanks [blush], but I am definitely no leader. I would like it if a leader understood some of those things though.

    Stephen, good point about diversity. I’ll refrain from my usual long rant about diversity and how we are playing a very dangerous game discarding it. 🙂

  17. Glenn

    An excellent article, and I wish there was an easy answer to pushing back against the parasites in power who promote this bigoted bullshit about “welfare”. Welfare has even become a dirty word, sadly. I would prefer “social assistance” – something more accurate to describe what is going on…society providing assistance to those who need it.
    I am one of Joe’s “lifters”, though I suspect I do more lifting than he does. I am a PAYE employee with a six figure tax bill every year. My marginal rate sits at about 42% of total income earned. I probably sit in the top 3-4% bracket of income earners – though a very far cry from the top .1%. But I am not so bigoted as to believe it is all because of my hard work and effort, though certainly it has played a part (so does luck). I acknowledge my free university education in the early 80’s, and the fact I am an English speaking white male in good health. All the attributes to give me an unfair head-start in society.
    I f#$*king hate my tax dollars being used to drop bombs on poor people in oil rich lands, to imprison poor people in remote islands, and to pay for Joe Hockey’s investment house in Canberra. I demand my tax dollars do more to help the homeless people on the streets of Sydney who’s cups I drop my coins into, the obviously mentally-ill woman wandering around our suburban high street on the North Shore, and the single Mum who is too embarrassed to let her daughter have a play day with our daughter at our home because she cannot return the favor in her tiny one bedroom flat, BECAUSE the shitty wage she earns is barely enough to clothe her daughter and put food on the table.
    We live in a wealthy country, one of the richest in the world. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH OUR GOVERNMENT AND THE PEOPLE WHO VOTE THEM IN? IS COMPASSION A FORGOTTEN FEELING??
    I have a little test I use to filter potential friends through the mix. Here’s the scenario…..if you raise the social safety net high enough to give those in need a respectable standard of living you increase the number of people cheating the system. However, you also eliminate those in genuine need living too close to the poverty line. Conversely, If you lower the social safety net to reduce the cheats you also increase the probability of putting those in genuine need closer to poverty. SO THE QUESTION IS….which is the greater evil? a higher number of cheats or a higher number close to the poverty line? Give the second answer as the one and you can GET THE HELL OUT OF MY HOUSE.
    And I haven’t event addressed the quagmire of corporate welfare which is becoming even more obscene under this right wing fascism we’re being subjected to.
    I earn more money that most doctors, and certainly a lot more than nurses, firefighters, ambo’s, teachers etc. But I add far less value to society than they do. So I don’t bemoan my high tax bill. It’s fair. However, it’s fair in an equitable society, a society which see’s equity as treating it’s citizens as equal in value and equal in worth, and equal in deserving of sharing in the wealth of our nation.
    I believe in a fair go.
    There. I’ve had my rant. I’m angry. I believe in a just society. I’m one of Joe’s “lifters” and I want to slam my fist down his throat. Same applies to the rest of the Abbott Cabinet. Take away everything they own and give them a number at the Centrelink queue to ask for assistance. See how it makes them feel. Those self-serving pigs with snouts in the public trough.

  18. Glenn

    of course I meant the first answer to the question as the greater evil. (geeze,,,,,,writing in a pissed off mood causes terrible errors!)
    🙂

  19. paul walter

    Nothing more enjoyable being at the end of a long queue at a social security office and then be dealt with unsympathetically by some patronising goose the other side of the counter. For you, your plight verges on the existential, for others you are a fit subject for torment.

    I don’t want to know about welfare bashing into someone explains how the wealthy Treasurer pays rack rent to his even richer wife, then plunders the public purse to pay for this obviously rigged arrangement, (is she not generous enough, loving enough, to put hubby up for free, provided he leaves the toilet seat up and doesn’t snore?)

    An average welfare beneficiary would face the loss of their dole for years, for anything even remotely resembling this sort of trickery.

  20. Win jeavons

    I hate it when people talk about ” those who don’t want to work”. I know no one like that , but do know of those retrenched ( sometimes due to poor managers) who can only find part time work, or casual, often below their skill level. Critics should try living on part time work, at minimum rates. Worry about car workers , the older ones might never find work again. Remember that the right wing view ‘efficiency ‘ as most work for least workers’ wages.

  21. Wally

    @PamelaK “there just aren’t any entry level positions like there used to be” It has always been difficult to get an apprenticeship and considering our skills shortage you would think the government would make it easier instead of harder. Combined with the cut backs in the TAFE system the current policies will do no more than create more over educated know nothing want to bees.

    I wish your daughter luck, main thing is not to give up!

  22. writtenword09

    miriamenglish love you and thankyou so much. your comment is spot-on. <3

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