Housing, Welfare and the Return to Family

Panel at Queer Provocations, Feb 2016

Audios here: https://soundcloud.com/qpradio/housing-welfare-and-the-return-to-family-01-intro?in=qpradio/sets/housing-welfare-and-the-return

In the past few years there has been an increasing focus on entrenching people’s reliance on the family, to funnelling people into a particular modes of relationships, as well as magnifying the pressures on people to stay in relationships that they might otherwise leave. In this second section of the panel: Housing Welfare and the Return to Family in this talk I’ll look for an orientation to these questions through giving a brief history of welfare in Australia. What kinds of relationships would seem to suit living in this city? What do these arrangements hinder, what types of relationships receive support?

QP program

Part 2 of a 3: Welfare

Welfare has always been about the family.

In the late 1830s and early 1840s, acts passed in various Australian states that sought to make family members liable for the welfare of their family members. These sought to uphold family responsibility, rather than collective responsibility for those unable to work. Maintenance orders were to be made by the courts, specifying periods of time, varying amounts of money and breaches were punishable.

By the early 1900s, we see the family squeeze from another angle – as wage regulations were introduced that would subsidise particular models of family. In 1907 the Arbitration Court ruled that men were to be paid a wage that included a little extra to feed and clothe the people labouring in their households: their wives (and also their children). From these beginnings, the notion of social security extending to women and children bound them within the type of family that was recognised by the church and the law of the day.

By the 1920s, this ‘family wage’ was the income of over half of the recognised workforce in Australia. As Henry Ford – who played an important role in similar wage arrangements in the States – put it, the family wage was only for married men who had demonstrated “thrifty habits”. This, in a time when in Australia Aboriginal people were paid in rations or board, if at all, the indentured labour of many migrant populations was status quo and white women in Australia were paid about 1/6th to ½ of the wages that men were being paid. This arrangement of wages was a form of stratification in itself. It meant that a large part of the population depended on the heterosexual, married family as a way to feed, house and clothe themselves.

Propelled by collective demands and the post-war boom, the Australian State introduced unemployment benefits in the mid-1940s within its promise of full employment – again, similar exclusions applied.

By the early 70s the Australian Government had increased universal unemployment benefits and relaxed eligibility criteria. While the period leading to this is heralded as a time of radicalism and freedom movements across the world, back as early as 1968 the New Right was organising in Australia (Archer 2009). Around that time the Institute of Public Affairs produced the widely distributed pamphlet “Better Living – the key is Productivity”. In 1975, private businesses funded key neoliberal thinker Milton Freidman’s trip to Australia. Fredrick Hayek came in the following year.

The New Right in Australia sought to revise the common meaning of ‘rights’ and ‘justice’, uprooting them from the social basis through which they had been understood in the post-war period (Archer 2009). The emergence of the New Right also coincided with sharp inflation in Australia, which businesses responded to by cutting spending on wages. The neoliberals would blame the crisis on rising welfare expenditures and the labour unions having too much power. Proponents of the view that welfare had contributed to the moral decline of society, they saw this evinced in people fleeing the institution of marriage; and the vibrancy of youth culture. As the crisis deepened and more people were thrown out of work, the New Right discourse of the time played on these tensions.

Before his reprehensible claims about the Stolen Generations, Keith Windshuttle popularised the term ‘dole bludgers’ in his 1979 book Unemployment. ‘Bludging’, or having ‘too much’ free time became the focus of social security reform in the 80s. Under successive ALP governments, the State’s emphasis shifted from job creation (which had largely failed anyway) to putting people to work looking for work – plugging them into low waged, precarious work. Forced engagement with labour market programs, training, and job search activity tests became the new conditions for social security in Australia from the late 80s. Of course, among those who could, many would privately absorb the cost of education into their later life or to the grave with the, then, new student loan scheme (HECS). But for those on the dole there was thrilling prospect of workfare. Support payments contingent on participation in job training would grow in step with the market for education and services; as manufacture industries moved off shore. In 1998, the job training system was privatised, which effectively means that more than $5 billion a year is paid to religious charities, NGOs and for profit businesses for the surveillance of people on welfare, the odd clothes voucher and resume writing workshops.

Screenshot 2016-03-29 19.44.07

Youth unemployment reached an historic high in the 80s (and hasn’t changed much since) and during this period a range of punitive changes to welfare have been brought in. (The next section of this panel will trace some of the parallels with disability pensions). It’s hard to imagine the same vicious experimentation being directed at old age pensioners. And as an aside, the introduction of compulsory super in 1983 effectively meant that responsibility for our elder years was no longer the responsibility of the State through redistributive mechanisms – it is now also something we are all be forced to save for during our working lives.

The point to stress is that by the 90s people were living with their parents for longer.

At the beginning of the 80s, 25% of 20-24 year old women lived with their parents and so did around half of men of the same age. By the end of the 80s, 40% of young women and 65% of young men still lived in the family home (Barber 2005). Yet over the same period, more young people opted to live with their partners and marriage became less fashionable. How do we account for the overall increase in adults living with their parents? Partly it was because people were marrying later (and staying at home until marriage), but I think it has a lot to do with the restrictions imposed on youth allowance, the dole, getting a lease or squatting.

Panics around welfare went from being about welfare recipients being “bludgers” in the 80s – to fears that social security was making people ‘welfare dependent’ by the 90s. In the 90s, ‘self-reliance’ emerged as the antidote to ‘dependence’, and welfare reforms recalibrated to enhance the self as asset whose future value was to be the focus of society’s investment. As soon as Howard took up office in 1996 huge welfare reforms took place. In this period we saw a distinctive shift from redistributive policies to asset based welfare (this, when the gap between the very rich and low to middle incomes in Australia was growing). The opening part of this panel considered the ascendant view that welfare for the majority can be better organised through property, investment and inheritance. An extension of this, for those who have no access to home ownership or investment properties is, however, for the self to be envisioned as a person’s primary asset.

Screenshot 2016-03-29 19.45.58

The rationale, which extends to today, was to aim welfare towards making every individual able to work their social capital most effectively, and to self-manage their capacity. Concerns about poverty were sidelined, and the rhetoric of ‘inclusion’ took the stage. I’ll return to ‘inclusion’ in a moment, but suffice to say that when our movements speak of capacity, self-care, managing our issues, and inclusion – we need to be thoughtful about how these have been and are still being reinterpreted, and put to work today.

The most striking changes to Youth Allowance occurred during the Howard years. Previously Centrelink recipients were considered independent at 18 years old and could access the dole. But from 1996 onwards, up until the age of 25 you could get the reduced youth allowance payment if a full time student, up until you were 21 if you could demonstrate full-time job seeking activities, or from 15 if you were homeless. With exceptions for people who could prove severed ties with family, youth allowance payments would become means tested on parental income.

This effectively pushed the age of independence from 18 to 25. It was at once a way to reduce the number counted in unemployment figures, as well as reducing the number of people eligible for social security. But it also entrenched the responsibility for young people’s maintenance back within the family. Governments of the time said this explicitly. The Minister for Family and Community Services, Senator Jocelyn Newman, saw the enforcement of parental responsibility as an explicit objective of the welfare reforms. Howard famously said that the “best source of welfare is the family”.

The 2014 budget proposed a 6-month waiting period for under-30 year-olds to access the dole. In this move we see the period of “youth” again stretched and a growing pressure upon people to rely on their intimate networks for a long period before being eligible for social security. Without private support or savings, what would you do? In the 2015 budget this proposal was toned down to a 1-month wait, and failed to pass the Senate in September. The Government is intent on re-introducing the proposal along with other schemes such as income management, which in some areas with high Aboriginal populations have explicitly targeted youth and make it even harder to live on welfare. Now, the prospect of accessing welfare is the prospect of being poor for life.

While the Federal Government’s major review of welfare, released this time last year, recommended that a universal age of independence be established and that the age of recognised independence should be 22 – the meaning of independence is impacted upon by housing affordability, youth unemployment, health and how much work one has to do to sustain oneself in a city such as Sydney. It makes sense that things have changed, that there are less warehouses, public parties, squats. It makes sense that people’s creativity is being plugged into education, work, small businesses, or saving up for trips to San Fran or Berlin.

Returning to inclusivity – Particularly for those who can’t rely on parental support and are under 25, another way to access social security is to declare that you’re in a relationship. Centrelink was the first Government institution to recognise non-heterosexual couples. Didn’t that work out great: the first source of economic welfare for a person in a recognised relationship is legally their partner.

Screenshot 2016-03-29 19.49.37There has also been attention to operationalising these new and inclusive terms. A portion of Centrelink’s surveillance activities are now contracted out to private investigators, whose tools include social media. There was the ‘friends with benefits’ case in Brisbane in 2014, where Centrelink refused a carer’s payment to a woman who had occasional sex with her housemate. Such stories are not really that new – and based on the non-monogamous sexual relationship of the two people in Brisbane, the court ruled that the woman was eligible for the carer’s payment. But these examples show us how attention is being directed. I have confidence in our abilities to subvert these processes, people have been skillfully doing that for a very long time – and certainly other panels today and tomorrow will cover prospects via discussions on caring-labour, non-romantic relationships, shared housing and so on. But ultimately, the broader social effects of disciplining welfare recipients met with the absolute poverty of social security payments is alarming. Newstart has not been raised in real terms in 20 years and is currently 18% of the average wage in Australia. It’s surprising, really, that only half of Newstart recipients are reported to be living in poverty. In reality it must be higher, with only approx. 1% per cent of properties in Australia deemed to be affordable for a single person on Newstart in 2014 (see also).

We need to also notice how relationships and parents are reproduced. Centrelink reduces a single mother’s payment if she doesn’t disclose a father, she is forced to meet with a social worker and supply a letter from a third party that attests that she doesn’t know who the father is. Alongside this, the 2013 Inquiry into Australian Parentage and Family Law demonstrates the State’s growing interest in surrogacy, donor and non-traditional, non-biological families. The inflection in family law is on the child’s right to maintenance from within the legal confines of the family – it focuses on maintaining the traditional flow of property and familial welfare. There have been recent test cases that would also work to this effect. For example, to make sperm donorsliable parents’ regardless of the arrangements made by consenting adults. While these developments riff off queer struggles for dignity in all kinds of relationships, they seek to impose the terms of inclusion.

If the age of dependence is at least 25 these days, young people need Working Families (the actual title of Rudd’s 2007 policy). The 2014 budget cut Family Tax Benefits to single parents, and the 2015 Budget cut support to single parents whose children are older than 6 years where previously support was until the late teens. These changes reflect a growing economic pressure on people with low incomes to stay in recognised couples.

The most acute expression of these pressures is in domestic violence figures. Since 2013, around 132,000 women have sought assistance from homelessness services due to domestic and family violence. The number of requests for DV related crisis accommodation is more than double these figures. And yet, the overarching emphasis of the 2013 ‘Going Home Staying Home’ reforms has been to make domestic violence a housing issue. True, the claustrophobia of the housing market and intensity of work are doubtlessly factors – but that’s not what the Government means. If you have a stable home in this city and you leave into precarious accommodation you are more likely to be poorer in the long-term. The guiding assumption from this is that the family is the best anti-poverty mechanism and therefore the best source of welfare. In the context of shrinking public housing and the closure of the 60 of the former 88 secular, independent, women’s refuges in NSW there is a clear message about how and where women can seek help. (In the UK, where similar closures of women’s services have occured recently, David Cameron went as far as to say that the “family is the best anti-poverty measure ever invented.”)

This is a good point at which to start shifting keys to the next part of this panel. The National Disability Insurance Scheme presents perhaps the most extreme makeover of welfare along a distinctly competitive rationale – where more work will be extracted on both sides of the desk. As we turn to the gearing up of workfare, in particular targeting people on disability pensions, we should keep in our minds that there is no pure space where subjectivity, sex and relationships happen outside life’s other practicalities. Regardless of how we each make our lives from the contexts in which we live, these pressures foreclose various ways of living and relating to each other.




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