Thursday, September 07, 2017

Practical love, or worse? Cashless welfare not as advertised

Drug testing is just the start. If you were going to make life much more difficult for people on welfare you'd want to be sure there was a point. You'd want to trial the indignities, you'd want to know they helped.

The so-called cashless welfare card has been tried before. It was called the Basics Card during the Northern Territory intervention. Back then 50 per cent to 70 per cent of each payment was quarantined and put on a card. It could be only be used at certain retailers and it couldn't be used for cigarettes, alcohol, pornography or gambling, or to obtain cash.

A searing government-commissioned evaluation of the $410 million program could not find "any substantive evidence of the program having significant changes relative to its key policy objectives, including changing people's behaviours".

There was no evidence of changes in spending patterns, no evidence of any overall improvement in financial wellbeing, no evidence of improvement in community wellbeing, including for children, and evidence of the kind of learned helplessness that flows from making people dependent on the decisions of others.

The review found that, "rather than building capacity and independence, for many the program has acted to make people more dependent on welfare".

Two years on from that review, the government has tried it again. This time as a trial of a "cashless welfare card" that differs from the Basics Card only in that it doesn't exclude pornography and tobacco and it is meant to be acceptable everywhere.

While that may remove one of the problems, the card not being useable at cheap retailers, such as Aldi, and the retailers that do accept it jacking up prices, it leaves in place many more.

The trial in the East Kimberley and Ceduna in South Australia quarantines even more of each payment: 80 per cent. It applies to everyone of working age who gets a government benefit. Most are Indigenous. Many aren't used to handling cards. Many are unable to use the helpful app that allows them to check their balance. Smartphones are rarer in the outback.

An extraordinary one 1 in every seven 7 transactions are declined, mainly because of "card user errors" or insufficient funds. It makes using the card potentially humiliating, as does the required use of a separate tills at roadhouses and pubs that serve alcohol, identifying card users to other patrons.

It's impossible to use the card to pay for bus fares, school lunches, or goods bought from other members of the community. It's impossible to send gifts of money. And it's darn near impossible to wade through its 80 pages of conditions. I've tried. Anyone who succeeds will find they've agreed to hand over their entire transaction history to the Commonwealth, not that they have any choice.

But it's a success. A report by Orima Research to the federal government is said to say so. Leaked to a compliant media organisation and then released on September 1 by the human service minister Alan Tudge, the report is said to have found positive health and social outcomes "almost without precedent". Forty-five per cent of the of the users surveyed found they were better at saving. Less publicised was that 50 per cent found they were not. Twenty-three per cent said it had made their life better. Less publicised was that 42 per cent said it had made their lives worse.

Forty per cent said they could better look after their children. Less publicised was that 48 per cent said they could not. The negative responses are brave, given the design of the survey. Social researcher Eva Cox found that the interviewers offered $30 and $50 gift cards in return for asking the questions. They recorded IDs. Given the presence of an authority figure, almost all of those interviewed said they didn't didn't drink or take drugs or gamble to excess to start with, which makes it hard to know how to read their assurances that they were doing less.

Melbourne University development specialist Elise Klein says some may have said yes to "consuming less" simply because they didn't consume at all and there was no option to reflect that.

Niceties of survey design and execution were cast aside on the day the survey was released when the Prime Minister declared the scheme an "exercise in practical love", and extended it to the goldfields region incorporating Kalgoorlie and Esperance in Western Australia.

There had been "a big decrease in alcohol abuse, in drug abuse, in violence, in domestic violence".

Except that there may not have been. The finding about domestic violence isn't in the report, and the earlier interim report found both a reduction in the number of injuries domestic violence-style injuries at hospitals and an increase in domestic violence orders. The appendix to the report indicates that the authors had access to police domestic violence records but chose not to include them. Klein is chasing them under freedom of information.

It would be awful if the cashless welfare card was as misguided and damaging as other interventions in Aboriginal Australia, food stamps among them. It would be as awful if our leaders didn't want to know.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald