Targeted welfare - or just targets

By Kathy Marks

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

It's late morning in Bankstown, and Pam Batkin is waiting to accost people emerging from the Centrelink office - Australia's version of Work and Income. Approaching one woman, she asks: "Did they talk to you about income management?", then adds: "It's supposed to help people manage their money, but we don't think it's a very good idea."

In Australia, income management - also known as "welfare quarantining" - is associated with the remote Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory.

Lately, this unique form of social engineering has migrated from desert to suburb and in Bankstown, a socially disadvantaged slab of south-western Sydney, it has been greeted with outrage and apprehension.

One of Australia's most ethnically diverse areas, and with an unfortunate propensity to generate lurid headlines, Bankstown is one of five "trial sites" where some welfare recipients face having 50 to 70 per cent of their benefits ring-fenced onto a "BasicsCard".

It's also where opposition to the contentious programme has been most vocal, community organisations, trade unions and church groups waging a campaign of resistance.

Earlier this year, a two-week vigil was staged outside Centrelink, with volunteers such as Batkin, who runs a community services centre, manning the barricades - or, rather, a rickety picnic table propped up against railings.

Leaflets had been printed in Arabic, Vietnamese and Mandarin - but Batkin could only shrug apologetically at the slender young Ethiopian who asked her, hopefully: "Amharic?"

"I think they speak something like 70 languages in Bankstown," she sighed. (In fact, it's 127, with Arabic second only to English, thanks to the large Lebanese population.)

The aim of income management, introduced initially as part of the federal intervention, is to ensure children are properly fed, clothed and housed. As the BasicsCard can only be used on essentials, such as groceries and medicines, not to buy alcohol, cigarettes and lottery tickets, there is a belief it can also help address addiction-related social problems.

Opponents, however, say the quarantining of welfare is too blunt an instrument for that purpose. They also claim it will make life harder for people who are already struggling, and object to the expense - over the next four years it will cost A$117.5 million ($148.25 million) to administer in Bankstown, Shepparton (Victoria), Playford (South Australia) and Logan and Rockhampton (Queensland).

Advocates point to a study in Western Australia, where it's been trialled in the Kimberley and parts of Perth; 60 per cent of those questioned thought it had "made their life better".

However, a report for Australia's Parliamentary Library, which evaluated that study as well as research in the Northern Territory and Queensland's Cape York, said there was "an absence of adequate data related to the effectiveness or otherwise of income management".

If this latest trial is judged a success, the programme is likely to be rolled out more widely. So far, it has spread with minimal public debate - which Eva Cox, a Sydney-based sociologist and outspoken critic of the scheme, attributes to the fact that "since [it] started as a targeted Aboriginal programme, other sectors of the population assumed it had nothing to do with 'people like us'."

In Bankstown, three categories of people are in the sights of Jenny Macklin, the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs: those deemed to be financially vulnerable - who are behind with the rent, for instance, and in danger of losing their public housing; those referred by a child protection officer because their children are considered neglected or at risk; and those who volunteer.

Multiculturalism adds another dimension to the debate. A hop across the railway line from Centrelink is Chapel Rd South, packed with halal butchers, Korean greengrocers, Viet-namese bakeries and fishmongers, Lebanese sweet shops, noodle bars and herbal pharmacies. There are women haggling over durians and bundles of bok choy, schoolchildren munching on sticks of fresh sugar-cane, and barbecued chickens dangling in the window of the Big Hong Kong Garden restaurant.

People whose income is quaran-tined can't shop in Chapel Rd South, at least not with a BasicsCard. Coles, Woolworths and other large chains dominate the list of Bankstown businesses approved to accept the card, with the only "ethnic" shops being two Asian groceries.

Shanna Langdon, from the Metro Migrant Resource Centre, says: "It contributes to social exclusion, because you can't shop where your community shops. These are people who already feel isolated, who might have come here as refugees, and it's cutting them off from a way of connecting back to their culture."

The stigma associated with the bright green card is another concern.

"When people use this special card, everyone sees them just like second-class citizens," says Angela Zhang, a community worker with Asian Women at Work. "They feel shame, like they put something here" - she taps her forehead - "saying you can't manage money, you're stupid, you use drugs or you got some problem."

According to the Government, the five locations were chosen because of their high levels of unemployment and long-term welfare dependency. In Bankstown, however, many are convinced the area's image played a part. "We were an easy target - we already had a tarnished reputation," insists Randa Kattan, head of the Arab Council Australia.

Over the past decade or so, Bankstown has witnessed notorious gang rapes and a series of drive-by shootings. Young men from the area descended on Cronulla to retaliate following the riots. All those events involved local Lebanese, and Kattan believes that income management will reinforce prejudices. As another local puts it: "They knew people would say, 'Yeah, there's a lot of Lebs there, and they're rorting the system'."

Cynics suggest far from singling out any one group, welfare quar-antining is being enforced ever more widely in order to dispel the whiff of racial bias. Macklin says she has "seen how helpful income management has been for families in other parts of the country". Her spokesman adds: "We're extending it to other areas because we think it works."

Down to the basics

* Welfare benefits are paid with an electronic card instead of cash or cheques.

* The cards can only be used to purchase items such as food, housing, clothing, education and healthcare.

* People spend their money only at approved businesses.

* The Australian Government calls it income management. Some use the cards voluntarily, but for others they are compulsory.

- NZ Herald

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