Last week The Age reported that vacant housing owned by the state government in Bendigo Street, Collingwood, “could be used to help family violence victims”. Emphasis added.
The State government and others are touting the story in The Age in an attempt to convince homelessness activists to end their occupation of the vacant houses that were compulsorily acquired by the state government for the failed East West Link project.
The article in The Age contains no definite information about the government’s plans, it merely states that when asked “if the government would use the available properties to help domestic violence victims, Housing Minister Martin Foley did not rule it out”.
All of the information that activists have seen indicates that if the government has definite plans to use the vacant properties (which is not clear), they do not have comprehensive plans to utilize all of the houses, and they do not intend to convert them into public housing. At best, government officials have indicated they have plans to lease certain East West Link houses to a “community housing” project.
“The 6 unused houses on Bendigo St to be made into genuine public housing … [and that] All unoccupied properties acquired for the East-West Link that are still in the government’s possession to be added to the public housing register … [and that] The Andrews government to say how they intend to provide housing for 25,000 homeless people”
The focus on Public housing is a deliberate part of their demands. “Community” housing is not public housing, although the distinction is lost on many.
“Social” or “Community” housing projects are administered by social service or religious NGOs and charities. These projects do not offer the long term security of tenure or guaranteed affordability of the public housing system. For LGBTQI+ homeless people community houses offers the vidmate additional awkwardness and likely discrimination associated with potentially homophobic religious groups such as the Salvation Army.
The Salvation Army has been forced to make a public apology after one of its majors stated that the Salvation Army believes gay people should die.
There is a housing crisis in Melbourne, and the policies of the state government seem poised to make life harder for people depending on public housing. Last year the state government foreshadowed plans to turn much of the state’s existing public housing over to “community housing” projects.
The wider community should not be fooled by the FUD being spread by the state government. The state government continues to hold houses empty, and they failed to announce any credible plan for the houses in Bendigo Street, Collingwood. The occupation initiated by the HPUV continues; if you have half an hour free, come down to 2 Bendigo Street and get involved.
Housing that was compulsorily acquired as part of the failed East-West Link project is STILL empty six months after it was handed over to a homelessness charity.
Today the Homeless Persons’ Union has occupied several vacant houses on Bendigo Street in Collingwood. Approximately thirty activists are camped out at Bendigo Street demanding to know why housing owned by the Andrews state government sits empty whilst thousands of people sleep rough on the streets of Melbourne.
— Kieran Bennett (@KieranBennett) March 30, 2016
Media release from the Homeless Persons Union:
EAST WEST LINK HOMES LANGUISH AMIDST HOMELESSNESS CRISIS
Early this morning a coalition comprising members of the Homeless Persons Union Victoria and Melbourne’s homeless community began demonstrating at a number of empty properties on Bendigo St, Collingwood. The properties are among those that were compulsorily acquired by the former Napthine government for the now defunct East West link.
The demonstration seeks clarification on issues surrounding the ownership, management and occupancy of these empty, publicly-owned properties. The lack of transparency has led to confusion within the homeless community.
Six months ago there were media reports that 20 properties were transferred to the Collingwood Football Club’s ‘Magpie Nest’ program, a partnership with The Salvation Army, to house the homeless. A spokesman from Magpie Nest claims that all properties transferred to their management have been filled.
In light of this, the demonstrators call on those responsible to immediately provide clarification on who owns and manages the remaining empty properties. It is unjustifiable that these dwellings remain unoccupied with a Victorian winter approaching.
There are 35,000+ Victorians on the public housing waiting list, growing at 100 per month. This is while the Andrews government neglects, demolishes and privatises public housing.
Each and every Victorian has a human right to safe, secure and affordable housing.People lose their lives due to medical conditions acquired through being exposed to the elements whilst living rough.
We ask the Andrews government and the Victorian public- is this good enough?
As of midday the action is ongoing, demonstrators are discussing the possibility of an ongoing occupation of the vacant homes.
Today’s action has ended with something of a win for demonstrators. Police responded to the demonstration Bendigo street this afternoon and demanded that homelessness activists vacate the occupied homes. After a prolonged standoff, police relented and departed.
Activists have announced that a mass meeting will be held tomorrow at 6:30pm and are encouraging all supporters to attend.
— Kieran Bennett (@KieranBennett) March 30, 2016
There is coverage of today’s action on The Age website:
Occupiers are staging a sit in, as part of an organised protest against the waste of much needed inner-city housing.
About 50 homeless people and members of the Homeless Persons Union Victoria are protesting at several of the empty homes that are now publicly owned. They have moved into the street, bringing couches, gas cooking burners and placards with them.
The Herald Scum also have a brief article up that’s so bad it’s not even worth linking too.
I’m posting periodic updates on twitter using the hashtag #EWLinkHouses.
Update 1 April 2016:
The #EWLinkHouses occupation on Bendigo Street Collingwood is ongoing! Demonstrators have occupied 2 Bendigo Street, and setup a protest media hub.
The Homeless Person’s Union have released a new set of demands:
BENDIGO STREET OCCUPATION TO CONTINUE UNTIL DEMANDS ARE MET – PUBLIC HOUSING NOW
A group of housing activists and homeless people have occupied properties in Bendigo Street, Collingwood.
These 6 government-owned houses were pledged to be used to address homelessness by the Andrews government, but many have been sitting empty for over a year.
The occupiers of the properties have made the following demands and refuse to leave until they are met.
• Immediate release of all information relating to the current ownership of all
properties acquired for the East-West Link, with full transparency about all
acquired land and no more dishonesty.
•The 6 unused houses on Bendigo St to be made into genuine public housing
and allocated to some of the 35,000 people on the public housing waiting list.
Occupation will continue until the first keys are handed over.
• All unoccupied properties acquired for the East-West Link that are still in the
government’s possession to be added to the public housing register.
• Minister Martin Foley to come to Bendigo St and be interviewed by people
with experience of homelessness.
• The Andrews government to say how they intend to provide housing for 25,000
homeless people while there are 80,000 unoccupied dwellings in Melbourne.
Given the importance placed on addressing housing issues by the report
of the recent Royal Commission on Family Violence, the occupiers believe taking
action on public housing should be an immediate priority of all levels of government.
There is more media coverage in The Age:
Homeless women ‘told they had 10 minutes to leave’ East West Link home
On Thursday Roads Minister Luke Donnellan said the nine vacant properties in Bendigo Street were empty because they were awaiting a tenant or needed more work to prepare them for occupation.
He said if the squatters at Bendigo Street were homeless they should join the public housing list – which stands at more than 30,000 people across Victoria and 1204 in Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond.
In a sit-in protest on Bendigo Street on Thursday, about a dozen people hung banners and set up couches and cooking facilities on the footpath.
The Green’s Ellen Sandell was among a number of supporters to pop down on Day 3 and offer support to the occupation:
— Kieran Bennett (@KieranBennett) April 1, 2016
Demonstrators intend to continue the occupation over the weekend. If you’re in the Melbourne area be sure to head down to Bendigo Street and show your support this weekend!
“Welfare notes” is an irregular update on unemployment and fight for livable welfare in Australia.
1. Cashless Welfare Card
The federal government has embarked on yet another iteration of income management. The initial income management program was introduced by the Howard government as part of it’s appallingly racist “Norther Territory Intervention”, ostensibly aimed at stopping child abuse. In reality the scheme was an arbitrary array of racist and paternalistic measures that increased indigenous poverty and wrought destruction on indigenous communities.
The new income management trial has been dubbed the “Cashless Welfare Debit Card” and is due to be inflicted on the South Australian community of Ceduna. A twelve month trial of the new welfare card is expected to be expanded in the new year, and will likely affect the Western Australian towns of Kununurra and Halls Creek.
Unlike the Basics Card, which controversially required merchants to sign up to accept the card (basically restricting indigenous people to shopping at major chain outlets), the new “cashless welfare card” is expected to function as a debit card and will presumably be accepted anywhere that has EFTPOS access. According to the DSS website:
The cashless debit card will look and operate like a normal bank card, except it cannot be used to buy alcohol, to gamble or withdraw cash.
The kicker is how they intend to achieve this. Detail is thin on the ground, but at community information sessions in Ceduna activists were basically told that the Department of Social Servicess is relying on merchants in the town to discriminate against people utilizing the new welfare card.
The Australian Association of Social Workers utterly eviscerated the plan in a submission to the Senate Community Affairs Committee, here are some highlights:
This Amendment allows for a trial on an aspect of income management that has failed in the past … On the evidence to date, involuntary income management has not been successful in reducing the habitual abuse and associated harm resulting from alcohol, gambling and illegal drugs. …
The technology of the proposed debit card is unproven …
A considerable number of people who do not need income management will be affected by this proposed Amendment … Within the trial sites there will be a large number of welfare recipients who manage their scarce resources well and who do not have a problem with alcohol, illegal drugs or gambling. Their normal patterns of financial management will be disrupted yet they will gain nothing from the trial. The Evaluation New Income Management in the Northern Territory: Final Evaluation Report highlighted a number of such instances. …
This Bill foreshadows a movement toward a more intrusive and disrespectful welfare system that would be rejected by the majority of Australians as paternalistic.
The AASW and others (eg. Eva Cox in this article for the conversation) argue that the government’s Ceduna trial wont even give them the information on income management that they claim to be seeking. The trial wont distinguish between the impact of income management and other new policy changes targeted at Ceduna, a twelve month trial is decidedly short for its stated aims.
The Ceduna trial is not a test of the effectiveness of income management to combat substance misuse. We already know that conditional welfare is disastrous upon the lives of welfare claimants and utterly ineffective in preventing substance misuse.
The cashless welfare card is a trial in politics. It will test whether this level of pervasive control over the lives of welfare claimants can be effectively implemented, it will test the technology, and it will test the politics.
The government has been steadily moving “toward a more intrusive and disrespectful welfare system” for more than a decade. In 2014 significant measures towards a harsher welfare system were rejected by the majority of Australians (although the expanded Work for the Dole program remains). The Ceduna trial is a subtler approach, an experiment upon a largely indigenous community that can be slowly extended and expanded with minimal resistance.
Meanwhile, the failed ‘Basics Card’ continues to operate across the Northern Territory.
2. Work for the Dole evaluation released
According to the ABC:
A study commissioned by the Federal Government has found its work for the dole trial led to just a 2 per cent increase in job placements.
The evaluation was undertaken by the Social Research Centre and probably warrants a longer read by those of us campaigning on the issue of Work for the Dole. The whole thing is online here.
When the government announced the policy I was hopeful that sufficient pressure placed upon potential hosts could prevent the policy’s successful implementation. The evaluation notes:
At up to 15 hours per week per participant, the number of available work experience activities has been sufficient to meet demand – although initially a slow start, once the coordinators and providers were on board with the programme there appeared to be little difficulty in sourcing activities (although there were some exceptions in some of the more regional locations) through host organisations. … However, the suitability of activities has not necessarily aligned with what job seekers are able to do (or want to do).
In some cases, it was reported that activities were created by coordinators (as expected) but then providers were unable to provide suitable job seekers to fill those places because, for example, they had criminal records so could not be placed in that activity, they had transport/access difficulties, or became ineligible for WfD. Some providers and job seekers expressed a concern that too many activities were of the same type (charity shop work and environmental/gardening were cited, for example) that did not always provide sufficient work-like experience or choice.
Work for the Dole participants contacting the Dole Action Group have pointed to the creation of a veritable industry of pseudo-charities that exist solely to churn work for the dole placements.
The best I heard recently was from a person who did a Work for the Dole placement at a charity that (among other things) distributed food parcels on behalf of other charities:
Which is basically they give us food parcels as we have healthcare cards and they are seen to be doing this service.
3. myGov problems
Who needs the Australia Card when we’re all progressively forced into using myGov! From the Sydney Morning Herald:
Mrs Smith, who lives in the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn East, has been unable to access online services through myGov for three months thanks to an “error” which nobody seems to know how to fix.
Oh fun and games, good thing it’s never happened to anyone else, right?
DHS was unable to comment on whether the problem was widespread. However Centrelink’s Facebook page is littered with daily complaints from customers including images of call wait times on mobile phones of over an hour, and complaints of being locked out of myGov accounts. Fairfax Media has also received correspondence from frustrated users unable to access their myGov accounts on an ongoing basis due to unresolved errors.
4. Centrelink industrial dispute ongoing
The enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) covering Centrelink staff expired 30 June 2014. When I last posted an update, Centrelink staff had just engaged in a series of short stop-works… There has been little progress since then.
The Canberra Times reports:
The Department of Human Services has cancelled a staff vote on a new enterprise agreement before Christmas.
The Community and Public Sector Union said it was a “tacit acknowledgement” workers were fundamentally opposed to losing rights under the government’s “failed bargaining policy” but Human Services has rejected this assertion as a misrepresentation.
The enterprise agreement ballot of all DHS staff would have closed on December 22 but had now been delayed until February next year, the CPSU said in a statement.
In September 83 per cent of DHS staff voted ‘no’ to their agreement offers.
As I said back in May, government cut backs and under staffing at Centrelink is making life unbearable for Centrelink workers and welfare claimants alike.
5. Unemployment Rate
ABS Labour force statistics for November report that the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate has fallen by 0.1 percentage points to 5.8%. According to the ABS there are currently 752,300 people unemployed in Australia.
The labour underutilization rate (definition) has also fallen, to 14.3%. Approximately 1,797,600 people are looking for (more) work.
The most recent stats on job vacancies (August 2015) reported approximately 160,200 positions. The next series (November 2015) is not due out until January 2016.
There remain approximately 11.2 people seeking (more) work for every advertised job in Australia.
TD;DR, Use of a standard hashtag for tracking ticket inspectors, and specific hashtags for routes and stops, would improve the level of information available to commuters on social media.
Approximately 5.9% of public transport users fare evade. I’m surprised it isn’t higher; there are plenty of good reasons people fare evade.
Consider the rate of poverty; 13.7 of Melbournians live below the Henderson poverty line. All of the current welfare payments fall below the Henderson Poverty line. If you are on any form of welfare payment, you’re likely subsisting on <$20/day after rent. A concession myki daily in zone 1 is $3.76. Everybody need some basic access to transport, and until there is some form of free public transit, a sizable minority of public transport users will be forced to either fare evade or walk.
I am surprised that so many living on so little scrape together the payments demanded by the private operators of our supposedly public transport system. But then, consider the level of policing. As a recent report in The Age highlights:
“More than 13 million tickets have been checked since October 2013, with authorised officers checking around 400,000 more tickets per month than the same time a year ago,” Mr Fedda said.
Fare evasion peaked in 2011, during the transition to the myki smartcard system, when 12.7 per cent of passengers fare evaded. Since then the number of fines handed out has soared 46 per cent, with 158,000 infringement notices issued in 2013-14, Mr Fedda said.
More Myki outrages. Authorised Officer prevents a commuter from touching off, then books him for not touching off: http://t.co/eWnP4M04cI
— Julian Burnside (@JulianBurnside) September 1, 2015
Whether it’s disgust at violence by inspectors, a $1.5 billion dollar ticketing system paid for with public money for the gain of private contractors, ongoing boycott in protest at the sacking of Connies, or the simple fact that we all need to travel whilst not all of us can pay – there are many good reasons to fare evade.
There are also many good reasons to want to know where the “chaps” enforcing this farce are at.
Three years ago the Sydney tabloids breathlessly reported on a sinister new mobile app that was going to tell us all where the ticket inspectors were at. The Spector app hasn’t been updated since 2013 and receives little in the way of traffic.
More recently the Herald Sun and others have reported on Facebook pages warning commuters of the location of authorised officers:
THOUSANDS of Melbourne fare evaders are dodging ticket inspectors with the help of social media snitches that track their whereabouts.
More than 4700 people have liked a Facebook page that posts the whereabouts of inspectors and encourages others to do the same.
Two of the larger Facebook groups are Report Ticket Inspectors live and Where are our mates, Melbourne’s PT ticket wardens today?.
Both of these groups are interesting projects, but it’s a bit of a lucky dip as to whether you will find the information you want by trawling these groups when you are traveling. The same is true for information on twitter.
Public transport users interested in tracking, monitoring, or avoiding (for various reasons) Melbourne’s ticket inspectors need a more reliable system. My earth shattering proposal: basically what everyone is already doing but with some standard hashtags.
There should be a general hashtag for tracking authorized officers in Melbourne (as opposed to the generic #ticketinspectors, which whilst intuitive is just as likely to give you information about scum on the tube), and then specific hashtags for every tram, train and bus service.
For want of a better solution, I propose #AuthOffMelb. It’s a bad attempt at a bad pun.
I’d then propose that all reports of ticket inspectors locations include a hashtag for the service. For buses, #bus and then the bus number, eg. #bus903. For trams, #rt and then the route number, eg. #rt19. For trains, #[destination]line, eg. #WerribeeLine. If used consistently, this would give people the ability to check ticket inspector locations on their line.
It would also be useful to use standard hashtags for stops and stations. Stations are easy, #StationnameStation, eg. #FlemingtonStation. Both trams and buses have stop numbers, but I’m not sure how many people pay attention to either. It’s probably easier to encourage people to use the most common name for stops, eg. #MelbourneUniStop.
So the long and short of all that rambling: if people chose to Facebook and tweet reports on the location of ticket inspectors in a standard format with some standard hashtags, more people might be able to make use of that information in various ways.
Examples (entirely fictional):
Chaps at #VicUniStop. #bus550 #bus551 bus#250. #authoffmelb pic.twitter.com/OOs0kba0T4
There are delightful people on #rt57 to city, just passing #ChildrensHospitalStop. #authoffmelb
The #CranbourneLine that just left #SouthernCrossStation is crawling with them. #authoffmelb
Attempting to avoid or track ticket inspectors is not a long term solution. Every person living here needs to be able to move about the city. Public transport is a public good that should be provided for all, yet at present we live in a city where hired goons extort money from public transport users who (where they are fare evading) largely can’t afford it. Public transport built and maintained at public expense has been contracted out for private gain.
In the long term we should demand free public transport. As an anarchist, another interesting question is that of direct action. How can public transport users take collective action to demand or create free public transport?
The basic idea that springs to mind is some kind of payment strike. Mass non compliance with ticket inspectors, perhaps backed up by the collective action of commuters to eject ticket inspectors from public transport vehicles, could render public transport fares meaningless. Any such campaign would have to involve both the majority of public transport workers and a sizable proportion of commuters to be successful.
A payment strike is not practical at this point. Until it is, we should continue to raise the demand that everyone has the right to move about this city, whether they have $3.76 or not.
Check out this handy flow chart, “Can I ride the tram?”.
1. “Try before you buy”
Abbott reckons that unemployed workers are there to “try before you buy”.
In the past, the idea that Work for the Dole only occurs in the non-profit sector has been key to maintaining the legitimacy of the scheme. Of course, in practice the scheme has been used to displace paid employment in a whole range of settings.
The business lobby wants its cut of any free labour going around, in February the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) announced that Work for the Dole “needs” to be expanded to the private sector:
Australia’s peak business body wants to expand the work for the dole scheme, allowing the private sector to use young unemployed workers who would be paid for from the public purse as a way of addressing youth unemployment.
At the time I wrote that:
Forced charity work is ultimately just the wedge by which the government gets the infrastructure of forced labour ready for wider application … [but] ACCI probably jumped the gun a bit … their friends in the government are probably smart enough to realize that [W4D in the private sector] is not yet palatable”.
Oh what a difference three months can make.
The federal budget includes $18 million funding for a new initiative that would “allow” unemployed workers to do four weeks unpaid work for a prospective employer whilst receiving the dole. Tony Abbott has touted the scheme as an opportunity for employers to “try before you buy”.
Great. A four week trial shift “for the dole”. On an aside, unpaid trial shifts are meant to be illegal, as the Fair Work Ombudsman’s website explains:
Any period beyond what is reasonably required to demonstrate the skills required for the job must be paid at the appropriate minimum rate of pay. If an employer wants to further assess a candidate’s suitability, they could employ the person as a casual employee and/or for a probationary period and pay them accordingly for all hours worked.
Also, there is this thing called the minimum wage. If unemployed workers in Abbott’s “try before you buy” scheme are doing a standard 38 hour week for their dole payment, they’ll be making a grand $6.74 an hour.
2. Centrelink short staffed… duh.
Centrelink is short staffed, who’d have thunk it. The Age reported earlier this week that:
Centrelink has ordered hundreds of public servants around the country to drop everything for two days and answer phones in a desperate bid to make its performance look better.
This comes after a National Audit Office report that found that last year 26 million calls to Centrelink went unanswered. Again from The Age:
Australians spent 143 years waiting in vain to speak to Centrelink in 2013-2014, before simply hanging up, the auditors calculated.
About 13.7 million calls did not even make it to the point of being put on hold, after they were blocked or received a “busy signal”.
Another 13 million of the calls that did manage to get into the system were “abandoned”, with the callers getting tired of waiting to speak to an operator, the Audit of the Department of Human Service’s “Smart Centre” system found.
Centrelink telling their staff to drop everything and get on the phones will merely shuffle the short staffing problem about.
Elsewhere at Centrelink, the processing of Austudy and Youth Allowance claims has taken months:
Most universities close for the mid-year break next month but many students who applied to Centrelink for financial support at the start of the year are yet to receive a payment.
Student advocates say the government welfare agency refuses to provide a timeline for Austudy, Youth Allowance and Abstudy applications …
“It’s across the board,” said Stuart Martin, chairman of the national Student Financial Advisers Network. “This is significantly worse than previous years. I’ve heard cases of [students waiting] even 12 and 14 weeks.”
3. Also on Centrelink…
Centrelink staff held a one hour stop work on Monday (17 May) in response to an ongoing pay dispute affecting 160,000 public servants. Their EBA expired on June 30 last year and the government seems intent on forcing public servants to take a pay cut:
“Workers are being asked to cop a massive cut to rights and conditions, in return for low annual pay offers of between zero per cent and one per cent a year that leave real wages going backwards.
This is just another part of the government’s cuts agenda, for this reason alone welfare claimants should support industrial action by Centrelink staff resisting the governments attacks. Cut backs and understaffing are making life unbearable for Centrelink workers and welfare claimants alike, perhaps it’s time to raise the demand: “Fair pay for Centrelink workers and fair payments for clients!”
New Matilda has good coverage of the industrial dispute.
4. AUU vs Max Employment
Despite the discovery of damning allegations against Max Employment, the Abbott Government has failed to take any legal action against the US-owned billion dollar multi-national corporation. In fact, the Government recently rewarded Max Employment with an $800 million 5-year contact.
You can watch the 4 Corners episode AUU is referring to here, it’s damning stuff.
Unfortunately it seems corporate profiteers from human misery are quick to reach for the lawyers when criticized:
If that’s not a good enough reason to sign the AUU petition, I don’t know what is!
5. Yet another crackdown
Who’s the bigger crook, a corporate entity that avoids millions of dollars in tax, or a welfare recipient who under reports their income? Corporate tax avoidance is big business:
A third of ASX200 companies have an effective tax rate of less than 10%. … If the largest Australian listed companies paid taxes at the statutory corporate tax rate of 30%, it would produce an additional A$8.4 billion in annual revenues.
There was rhetoric from the treasurer about corporate tax avoidance in the budget, which rings a bit hollow when you learn that the ATO has shed 4000 staff, is shedding more, and:
There are also questions about whether the Tax Office is pursuing big companies as vigorously as it used to. The number of taxpayers The Tax Office views as high risk has diminished, although the Tax Office refuses to tell Fairfax Media how many large corporates are now in the highest-risk category, claiming the numbers have not been finalised.
The CPSU survey found just under half of those surveyed think budget cuts have affected decisions on whether to litigate. Comments included that “more settlements are occurring”, and “current ATO policy is for staff to look at alternative dispute resolution and settlements rather than litigate”.
Apparently there is no money to chase corporate tax dodgers, but plenty to hound the unemployed, pensioners and students over income reporting:
The Federal Government is set to announce a crackdown on welfare cheats by appointing a senior police officer to lead the attack on welfare fraud.
Human Services Minister Marise Payne said the Government is working with the Australian Federal Police to appoint an officer to lead a special taskforce.
The taskforce will target people who have undeclared income, with pensioners and people who receive the Newstart allowance and disability support to face income audits.
Beating up on the poor, letting rich mates go free. It’s business as usual here in Team Australia.
The dole is a poverty payment. People who rely on the Newstart allowance from Centrelink are living in poverty.
The Poverty Line
A poverty line is a tool for calculating whether a person is or is not living in poverty. Broadly, the two most common ways are to calculate a percentage of average income (a relative measure), or the amount of money required to buy a basket of goods (an absolute measure)1.
A relative measure of poverty assumes that poverty is tied to income inequality, and that having much less than everyone else is poverty. With this understanding of poverty, the amount of material resources that a person ‘in poverty’ might have access to varies according to the level of wealth in a given society. This can seem counter intuitive to people operating with a ‘common sense’ understanding of poverty, an understanding that sees poverty as a state of absolute material deprivation. The alternative is an ‘absolute’ measure, the most common of these used in Australia is the so-called Henderson poverty line.
The [Henderson] poverty lines are based on a benchmark income of $62.70 for the December quarter 1973 established by the Henderson poverty inquiry. The benchmark income was the disposable income required to support the basic needs of a family of two adults and two dependant children.
Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic Research, 2014, Poverty Lines Australia, September 2014.
There are several weaknesses with an ‘absolute’ approach such as the Henderson poverty line. First, it assumes the level of material goods required to sustain a person or family unit is unchanging and constant. In reality, our material existence under capitalism is constantly being transformed. What would Professor Ronald Henderson have made of ‘one laptop per child’ or the internet as a human right in 1973?
This points to the second major problem, an absolute measure of poverty is grounded in the values and ideas of the person or institution that decides on the associated basket of goods. Is a person ‘in poverty’ if they cannot afford healthcare, education, contraception, and so on? I suspect most Australians would say yes, but I doubt it is a view shared by our government.
I’ve gone off on a tangent.
Whether we calculate an absolute poverty line like Henderson, or a relative poverty line such as ‘less than 50% of median income’, the dole falls well short.
The most recent calculation of the Henderson poverty line estimates that a single person requires at least $342.14 a week 2, or $17,791.28 a year, to get by. Assuming they don’t need to pay for housing. It’s crazy, but most calculations of a poverty line bracket out housing3.
The most common relative measure of the poverty line is ‘50% of median income’4. The Australian Council of Social Services’ (ACOSS) regular report on Poverty in Australia calculates a poverty line as 50% of median disposable income (that is income after tax, after bracketing out housing)5. Using this methodology ACOSS’ 2014 report calculates a poverty line of $400.30 a week for a single adult.
To get an idea of how conservative these measures of poverty are, it’s worth comparing the various poverty line figures to crude average earnings. In November 2014 the average adult weekly full time wage was $1,476.30 a week (before tax), or $76,767.60 a year6. Half this amount would be $738.15 a week.
So how does the dole stack up? The current full rate of the Newstart Allowance pays unemployed workers a miserly $257.30 a week, or $13,40.60 a year.
The dole is $84.84 a week below the Henderson poverty line, $143.00 a week below the ACOSS relative measure of poverty and $477.85 a week below 50% average wage. No matter which way you slice the numbers, the dole is well below the poverty line.
The extent to which the dole in Australia is below the poverty line has been progressively increasing in Australia. Superficial increases in the dole are tied to the Consumer Price Index:
“Unemployment payments fell from 46 per cent of median household income in 1996 – a little below a conventional relative poverty line – to 36 per cent in 2009-10, a long way below such a poverty line,”
Whereas Newstart and the age, disability and carers pensions were once roughly similar, different methods of indexation adopted in 1997 mean the gap is now more than $200 a fortnight
Newstart increases in line with the consumer price index while pension payments increase with average male wages. The Centrelink website says this means Newstart grows “in line with increases to the cost of living” but the cost of living for beneficiaries has been climbing faster than the CPI.
“Since 1998, the special analytical price index for beneficiaries has risen by about 5 per cent more than the CPI, meaning using this measure their real incomes have fallen,” Professor Whiteford says in the report.
The dole is configured to continue sliding deeper and deeper into poverty territory.
The dominant ideas around the dole and unemployment justify welfare poverty on the basis that those on poverty payments have only themselves to blame. The unemployed worker is being punished for failing to “get a job”, something we’re told they could readily achieve if only they tried hard enough.
It is of course, bullshit.
There are at least 11 people seeking every advertised job vacancy in Australia. 782,000 people are officially recognized as unemployed, but the real rate of unemployment is much higher. A further 875,000 people are underemployed, they work at least one hour a week but need more. At least 1.8 million people are applying for the estimated 150,000 job vacancies in Australia at present.
This unemployment and under-employment is no accident. It is created by capitalism, and serves it’s ends:
It is the absolute interest of every capitalist to press a given quantity of labour out of a smaller, rather than a greater number of labourers, if the cost is about the same. … a surplus labouring population is a necessary product of accumulation or of the development of wealth on a capitalist basis, this surplus population becomes … a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production. It forms a disposable industrial reserve army, that belongs to capital … it creates, for the changing needs of the self-expansion of capital, a mass of human material always ready for exploitation …
The industrial reserve army, during the periods of stagnation and average prosperity, weighs down the active labour-army; during the periods of over-production and paroxysm, it holds its pretensions in check.
Marx, 1867, ‘Progressive Production of a Relative surplus population or Industrial Reserve Army‘, Capital Vol 1.
Capitalism makes use of unemployment to drive down wages and discipline employed workers. You better not play up because there are eleven more where you came from… The dole is necessary in this situation to maintain unemployment, the crude fact is that the ‘reserve army of labour’ would quickly starve to death if there were no form of social support available.
By keeping levels of social support at miserably low levels, capital and the state maintain the coercive power of unemployment. By keeping the unemployed in poverty, unemployed workers can be forced back into whatever work is offered, whenever capital needs it, at whatever wages are on offer.
Even the most ambitious plans to end welfare poverty that are discussed publicly in Australia do not undermine this basic logic. The Greens’ Sarah Hanson-Young is arguing for a $50 per week increase in the dole, a figure that would still leave the dole below the Henderson poverty line, and which would do nothing to solve the indexation trap. To give The Greens some credit, their position is at least significantly better than the government’s plans to drive pensioners into the same CPI trap as dole claimants.
Why I say ‘Double the Dole!’
The Australian Unemployed Workers Union has adopted a demand to increase all welfare payments to the Henderson poverty line, that is to $400 per week. It is one thing to make an argument that no one should live below the poverty line, but there are real reasons we should argue and fight for welfare payments well above poverty levels.
Earlier this month the union movement called a national day of action against the government’s attacks on “our living standards”. I and some friends went along around a banner that read “Double the Dole”, unfortunately many at that rally did not see defending the welfare system as defending “our living standards”. It is unfortunate, because doubling the dole (and indexing welfare payments to wages) would benefit every worker in Australia.
At it’s present poverty levels, the dole systematically undermines the pay and conditions of all workers. When a person can’t make ends meet on a poverty payment, they are left with little option but to take whatever is on offer, even if that is a dangerous cash-in-hand job for $3 an hour. A liveable dole, a dole payment that did not result in a precarious miserable existence, would act as a floor on wages and would limit the ability of bosses to engage in this kind of hyper-exploitation.
A liveable dole would rob bosses of one of their key forms of power. The power to hire and fire is terrifying to workers because unemployment can mean homelessness, hunger, relationship breakdown, and all manner of humiliation and misery. If we fight to remove the misery and humiliation associated with the dole the threat of being fired would be less potent and we would improve the position of every worker.
Demanding an end to poverty level welfare payments should not simply be a moral argument about children in poverty or “the unfortunate”, it should be a passionate argument for justice and solidarity. Unemployment is created by capitalism and benefits the bosses. We can and should demand that capitalism pay, and pay reasonably, for the labour it has caused to stand idle.