Australia is hosting the G20 this year and showcasing to the world its approach to welfare policy: deny young people income support
for up to six months and instead make more food vouchers available.
This is a bizarre and certainly remarkable innovation on the traditional
role of democratic governments to govern in the public interest.
Since the end of World War Two, when the international community
established the public institutions of capitalist prosperity, we have
thought that high youth unemployment is a bad thing, that homelessness
is to be deplored and that poverty is a social evil to be remedied. Yet
Australia has a government designing policies that will increase these,
even making budgetary allowances for emergency relief. These are policies to create an underclass.
Where else has a government worked to consciously send its citizens
into poverty? This is in stark contrast to the global shift to a policy
focus on reducing youth unemployment and inequality – which includes
organisations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.
Why social inequality matters
Consider what having no income for six months might mean in the lives
of real people: fear and anxiety; the humiliation and degradation of
eviction; partners, children and friends looking on; job searches
without money for transport; becoming glum and down at heel.
This route is the reverse of the traditional democratic pursuit of
national prosperity and stability, giving citizens and especially “our children and our children’s children”
(in the words of US president Barack Obama) confidence to look to the
future. It appears this does not apply in Australia – and, besides, life
was not meant to be equal.
So what does a bit more social inequality matter? Actually, there is an international research consensus about the destructiveness of social inequality on individual lives and on society broadly.
Comparing OECD market-based democracies, countries with the most
social inequality consistently score highest on social dysfunction
indicators – mental ill health, violence, incarceration, functional
illiteracy, obesity, substance abuse, among others. State policy
repertoires of citizen rights to generous public services are associated
with more social equality. Conversely, austere market-based approaches
to social policy typify the most unequal nations.
The United States is among the world’s most unequal nations.
The Abbott government’s welfare policies would take us closer to the
US. The budget policy rationale seems to be that a dose of fear and
insecurity is good for young people. But what sort of theory stipulates
that experiences of destitution or fear of homelessness are conducive to
healthy personality development?
Just as Australia’s convict forebears resorted to theft to eat, this
policy will push people to take desperate measures. Do I sell my body,
become homeless, or just deliver this bit of ice to cover the cost of my
Investments in people pay off
All the evidence points to the efficacy of the reverse policy logic:
supported jobs, job creation, accessible and affordable public services
for training and education, in order for young people to develop into
the resilient and flexible workforce of knowledge economies.
OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría is worried
most of all about “scarring”, the damaging effects of experiences of
poverty and unemployment for young people, which severely lessens
lifelong earnings and job opportunities. It is not as if our young
people are not already at risk; Australia has long had high rates of suicide and mental illness.
While federal treasurer Joe Hockey declares “the age of entitlement is over”, the IMF’s head Christine Lagarde
argued on a recent visit to Australia that governments have to provide
good public education and health and reduce social inequality.
As bastions of global capitalism, the IMF and World Bank championed
neoliberal economics from the 1970s. But now they declare that social
inequality harms economic prosperity.
Given increasing economics literature linking inequality with fragile
growth, the IMF used a multi-country, multi-variate and longitudinal
database to research the direct effects of government fiscal
redistribution. It reported in February 2014
that income transfers have no negative effects on economic growth. On
average, what governments have done to redistribute has narrowed
inequality, which helped support faster and more durable growth.
The IMF’s verdict is that to focus on economic growth alone and let
inequality take care of itself is wrong policy because the resulting
growth may be fragile and unsustainable. Such a strategy should also be
abandoned “from ethical, political, or broader social considerations”.
The OECD remains alarmed at the social impacts of the global
financial crisis and the evident decline of social trust and stability
since the GFC. It advises
the global community to rely on good social policies to develop the
resilience of populations needing to adjust to unpredictable economic
According to these representatives of the international research
community, social policies, welfare or public services entitlements are
not undesirable, nor deadweights on society, but necessary. In other
words, the Abbott government’s welfare policies are economically,
socially and ethically unjustifiable.
The date for Brisbane G20 draws near and I am feeling so embarrassed.