Will the public support conditional welfare?

Today in The Australian my CIS colleague Peter Saunders comes out in favour of ‘conditional welfare’, in which some welfare payments for parents deemed irresponsible or incompetent are restricted, so that they can only be spent on items the government deems appropriate.

So far as I am aware, this is not an idea that has been directly tested in an opinion poll. But based on answers to other questions we can take an educated guess as to what the public might say if asked.

Most of the people to whom conditional welfare would apply would presumably be on unemployment or single parent benefits, two groups which have not inspired enthusiasm among Australian voters. For example, a 2001 Saulwick poll asked about benefit levels for various beneficiary groups. Majorities supported higher payments for those who could not reasonably expected to work, the aged and disabled. But only 22% wanted more for single parents, and only 17% for the unemployed.

Both groups, perhaps, are seen as vulnerable to the moral hazards of welfare. In the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, more than half of respondents agreed that ‘welfare benefits make people lazy and dependent’, and even more thought that most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted to. Opinion was softer on single parents; 40% thought that they should be entitled to government payments so that they could stay at home to raise their children, 30% thought they should not, and the other 30% couldn’t decide. But it seems like we will be dealing with two groups about whom many voters already have doubts.

The idea that welfare includes responsibilities as well as rights has been very popular. The 2001 Saulwick Poll found 88% endorsement of the principle of people on unemployment benefits working. In 2005, more than 70% agreed that people who receive welfare benefits should be under more obligation to find work. A responsibility to look after children properly would probably be seen as even more important than a responsibility to work. And the relatively benign view of single parents compared to the unemployed on broad entitlements may reflect a belief that they are doing something useful – and that if they are not doing what they are supposed to be doing, it is reasonable to divert their benefits to ensure that the intended goods and services are purchased.

Another hint as to likely opinion is that other forms of earmarked expenditure seem popular. Extra spending on health and education has been riding high in all the polls for the last few years, and when the 2005 AuSSA asked about welfare priorities ‘improved services like Medicare and public education’ was the most popular (though there is a large component of self-interest in all this).

Overall, I think conditional welfare is likely to have majority support in public opinion – provided it is restricted to the irresponsible and incompetent lower classes. The danger is that the maternalist state (we really should drop the term ‘paternalism’ – the state is far more involved in mothering than fathering duties), having used taxing and spending to draw much of middle Australia into its clutches, will seek to regulate more and more of family life. How long before nanny decides that kids are too fat, and starts trying to control what parents feed their kids?

Update 4 July: Cabinet has approved a conditional welfare policy:

ALL parents who do not spend their welfare payments in the best interests of their children should have them withheld, says the Minister for Families, Mal Brough.

The cabinet yesterday approved a policy that extends the Federal Government’s plan to quarantine up to half of parents’ payments to make sure necessities such as food, medical costs, rent and bills are covered.

In the Northern Territory the restrictions will apply to all parents living in remote communities, while the wider changes would apply only to parents who were deemed by the Federal Government to be neglecting or abusing children

30 thoughts on “Will the public support conditional welfare?

  1. Conditional welfare payments, proudly brought to you by the government that gave us the plasma TV bonus…

    It seems a touch inconsistent to require some people who recieve transfer payments to spend it on specific items while allowing others to spend it on whatever they like.

    But with the growing push for ‘early intervention’ from so many quarters, I suspect this will be the thin end of the wedge (using that word in its traditional sense, not its political sense).

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  2. Leopold – Though as has been pointed out on other threads, some welfare payments are given to adults for kids, and from that perspective there is nothing in-principle wrong with requiring the money to be spent on kids. The vast majority of parents care about their kids and try to look after them properly, so we can avoid the expense of monitoring expenditure.

    If the realistic options are:

    1) leaving the child without proper care
    2) taking the child into foster care
    3) directing welfare expenditure to the child’s interests

    Then (3) may be the best option. Of course there are all sorts of practical problems in determining which children need protection and controlling expenditure.

    Mark – 30% of those on unemployment benefits, 39% of single parents, according to the 2005 AuSSA. Presumably a small percentage of all people in these groups would be subject to control, but they all may fear it.

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  3. Andrew Norton quoting Mal Brough:
    ALL parents who do not spend their welfare payments in the best interests of their children should have them withheld, says the Minister for Families, Mal Brough.

    There you have it. Official policy is now to teach responsibility by taking it away. It seems there is a far bigger moral hazard at play here – that of governments with too few checks and balances on their knee-jerk, prejudiced instincts.

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  4. Andrew Elder, it is a very old idea, traceable back through the Victorian (I mean Queen Victoria) distinction between the “deserving poor” and the “feckless poor” to seventeenth century Puritan ideas. Christopher Hill’s book “Society and Puritanism in Seventeenth Century England” has a good coverage and some revealing quotes. Ultimately, I think the degree of forelock-tugging is the fundamental distinction – the squire will give you a shilling if you are suitably ‘umble, but if you look defiant he’ll give you a whipping.

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  5. I always thought conservatives thought people knew the best thing to do with spending money given to them.

    Now apparently this has changed as well or is it only certain people do not have the wherewithal to know how to spend money well.

    It is an argument that a libertarian would find impossible to mount.

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  6. “Official policy is now to teach responsibility by taking it away. ”

    David Rubie – perhaps you could explain to me how continuing to give money to parents who have been shown not to be acting responsibly vis-a-vis their kids will encourage responsibility? Do you honestly believe that there are no children in Australia going hungry because their parents are addicted to alcohol, drugs or gambling? Or that mere exhortation of such parents to change their ways will change that situation?

    This policy needs to be an intervention that ensures that children’s material needs are met, whether in the short or longer term, until such time as the parent(s) can demonstrate that they are capable of meeting their responsibilities.

    As I have said before here and on a number of other blogs, I regard family payments as the children’s money, that we pay to parents on the assumption that they are in the best position to meet their children’s needs. I have no problem with the idea of making other arrangements if it is clear that that is not happening.

    And Andrew, I sincerely hope your reference to the irresponsible and incompetent lower classes was tongue in cheek – I’m fairly confident that irresponsibility and incompetence are not confined to people with lower incomes.

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  7. “I’m fairly confident that irresponsibility and incompetence are not confined to people with lower incomes.”

    No, but single-parent and unemployment benefits are. And no matter where they start, the irresponsible and incompetent normally find themselves heading downwards in the status system, eg Paris Hilton’s recent trip(s) to jail.

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  8. I would draw a distinction between the idea that some people may need part of their income controlled to ensure that their children’s material needs are met and Peter’s broader idea that income support payments should be conditional on people meeting community norms of behaviour.

    The kind of conditionality I support, which according to your data is also supported by most people in the community, is conditionality directed at getting people to be more self-reliant financially (ie getting a job). If people can get and hold down a job while maintaining ‘undesirable’ personal habits such as drinking or taking drugs (as I think you would agree lots of middle class people do), then I don’t have a problem with that behaviour per se. If their addiction means that they have no chance of getting a job in the first place, then they should have some fairly strong pressure placed on them to do something about it, but of course you still need the places in drug and alcohol programs to be available, presumably funded by government.

    The case of placing conditions on people’s parental behaviour is more problematic, however. I see that there where people receive an income support payment that is ostensibly in return for the activity of parenting, that the community might have a legitimate interest in the quality of parenting being provided. But this is territory that I for one don’t feel really comfortable about the government getting involved in prescribing, apart from the obvious items such as children being adequately fed, clothed and housed and (possibly) attending school.

    In the end, that is why I would personally prefer for all income support for able-bodied people to be based on a broad notion of unemployment (that is, one that includes periods of labour force withdrawal to care for young children). This would better maintain a focus on the fact that people are expected to rejoin the workforce at some point and would be consistent with imposing the kind of work-related conditionality I spoke of earlier.

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  9. backroom girl wrote:
    Do you honestly believe that there are no children in Australia going hungry because their parents are addicted to alcohol, drugs or gambling? Or that mere exhortation of such parents to change their ways will change that situation?
    No, I don’t believe that. I don’t believe it’s confined to Aboriginals, the poor or any other “class” of people either. I don’t think social welfare will make the problem disappear either, it’s been with us since history has been recorded.

    Like a lot of people, I’m deeply cynical about the timing of this particular intervention. It seems Mal Brough has had his Graham Richardson moment (who can forget that oafs tears at being confronted with exactly the same situation 15 years ago or whatever it was).

    Andrew wasn’t tongue in cheek about his lower classes guff. He sincerely believes that status is virtue, and the inability to acquire it is a moral failure. It seems to be that the major moral failure is successive governments who find no votes in aboriginal problems and address them for six weeks every fifteen years. If JWH and Brough had any moral compass whatsoever, they would follow their instincts and shift aboriginals away from places where they cannot logically thrive and address housing shortages by targeting areas where they might find employment and more meaningful existence. However, this won’t happen, as the rodent has no faith in social policies that don’t involve razor wire.

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  10. Dsvid, I agree with you that any short-term solution to help kids in distress needs to be accompanied by longer-term solutions to address the underlying structural problems. I also share the concern that has been expressed by many that short-term is all we are going to get.

    But, as Noel Pearson has quite eloquently put it, those longer term policies will not help the kids who are cowering in the corner now and I for one don’t think that the current generation of kids (who will after all be the next generation of parents) can just be written off for the sake of pursuing only the longer-term structural solutions.

    IMO this issue of how to deal with the minority of parents’ neglect of children’s needs is an elephant in the corner that has been ignored by successive governments and well-meaning bureaucrats for far too many years.

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  11. It is not only parents on benefits that do provide for their children. There are guilty parents that receive wages also guilty of acting in this way. Is the government going to take control of their wages and child support. I guess not. The children’s Courts should be able to make orders that take some control of income, regardless of it’s source. New laws would not have to be put in place that override the state laws.

    This is the only way that any inrevention can be fair and supervised. Parents at this time are often asked to sign agreements to act in a certain way in relation to their children. Departments such as Housing can deduct rent at source but need the parents cooperation. it would be much better arrangements if the Courts could make such agreements compulsory.

    The way I see it, the Federal Government is moving towards setting up departments that duplicate what the states already have.

    Not all abusive parents deprive their children.

    As for food coupons, this is a method that will not work. Many years ago the charities used this method. I still remember more that one person who would buy their grocercies and return them at a later time in the dya, getting cash back. Another lurk was to sell the grocercies at discount. Thye then spent many hours in the back of the lcal pub. Generally went home broke. Food was obtained at annother charity on the Monday morning.

    You will find children living and being abused in most races in any community. The cases are just as bad as reported in the Territory. The causes are the same. Overcrowding, poverty, drug abuse, school non-attendance and mental illness. The difference is that the problems are easier to conceal from the general public.

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  12. gordon, I don’t doubt that it’s an old idea. I’m just saying, and Andrew Norton at post 9 appears to be agreeing, that it’s a bastard to define.

    There is plenty of Paris Hilton’s fortune between where she is now and the receipt of public benefits.

    Any line that Centrelink bureaucrats or their/our political masters draw between the “deserving poor” and the feckless and reckless will have plenty of either on the wrong side, even if we assume that people are not capable of reforming/relapsing.

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  13. Florence, the problem with the ‘leave it to the courts’ approach is that many extended families, who are the ones likely to be aware of the neglect and the ones who may pick up the tab for the kids if they can afford to, are highly reluctant to involve the child protection authorities, in part because of fear that the children will be taken away.

    I agree with you that simply replacing cash with vouchers or a smart card will not work – as these things can always be exchanged for cash one way or another. I would prefer the kind of approach where the money for the children is given to another person (usually a family member) or perhaps a welfare organisation of some kind who will ensure that the money gets spent where it needs to. Clearly setting up the administration of such a system will be quite a challenge – which is another reason why it should be confined to cases where there is clear evidence of neglect, rather than applied with a broad brush.

    And while I agree with you that neglect is often found in conjunction with overcrowding and poverty, I don’t agree that those things are causes of neglect. In the end, neglect occurs because, willingly or not, parents choose to spend the money they get for their children on something else.

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  14. backroom girl wrote:
    Clearly setting up the administration of such a system will be quite a challenge
    There is no challenge. The current system would work if it were adequately implemented. Those parents found to be neglectful of their children are breaking the law and should be prosecuted. Those people who are abusing children should be found and prosecuted. A bunch of hand wringing, crocodile tears and removing of benefits (that happily coincide with prejudice about the “deserving poor” and other RWDB claptrap) will do nothing if the law is not enforced. Simply doing that would solve most of the issues very quickly.

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  15. David, so you are in favour of wholesale ‘prosecution’ of parents neglecting their children, including removing the children from their care? I’m sure that would go down a treat in the indigenous communities.
    Lets be clear here that I’m not talking about physical or sexual abuse, just failure to ensure that your kids are adequately fed and clothed (housed is probably too much to expect in many communities) – do you really want to bring down the full weight of the law on that?

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  16. backroom girl, the intervention currently being staged is all about child sexual abuse (which is illegal) and not much to do with adequate parenting (which nobody in history has been able to guarantee). Yes the police should be involved – a huge problem in those communities is that they are inadequately policed.

    We are faced with a situation where a genuine problem has been identified. Instead of dealing with a bunch of researched and well considered approaches, the federal govt. has decided that their long held views of abbos as lazy animals can be acted on with impunity.

    Neglect is a specific word (and does not include the usual abuses like feeding your kids Micky D’s instead of vegetables for instance).

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  17. It’s amusing to see a so-called ‘classic liberal’ suddenly yearning for the firm hand of a wise and benevolent government when we’re talking about social deviants, or at least lower-class ones. That phrase about “the irresponsible and incompetent lower classes” really was a bit of a giveaway.

    Whatever happened to the notion of government failure, Andrew? Paternalist interventions of this sort have an almost uniformly dreadful record. Have you ever asked anyone who was a ward of the state about their childhood? Do you know why the welfare state replacement of private charity was such a popular innovation?

    That’s not to say the state should never compulsorily intervene in parenting – its just that it should be pretty much a last resort, because the state makes a really lousy parent.

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  18. David, I understand that child sexual abuse is the pretext for the current intervention in the NT, but I though this blog post was about the more general issue of whether it was appropriate to place conditions on receipt of welfare payments. (As far as I know the latest announcement about quarantining welfare payments has not been couched in terms of abuse.)

    Of course nobody can guarantee adequate parenting (whatever that is), but I think that there is an issue that some kids are not being adequately fed, for example. I also accept that in many cases the neglect is not wilful but simply a case of inadequate skills and knowledge about what constitutes an adequate diet. Some parents do need help of various kinds and help is what I think they should be offered. I just think it is unnecessarily short-sighted to see this as being all about punishment.

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  19. dd, thanks for proving my point. Poor definitions poorly enforced make for poor policy. The state always intervenes as a last resort due to legal and funding restraints – sometimes after “the last resort”, if stories of neglect of state wards is anything to go by.

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  20. backroom girl wrote:
    I though this blog post was about the more general issue of whether it was appropriate to place conditions on receipt of welfare payments. (As far as I know the latest announcement about quarantining welfare payments has not been couched in terms of abuse.)
    The quarantining talk was a natural extension of the criticism of the feds has having racism as the basis of welfare withdrawal. The feds were (rightly) criticised for espousing what was a race-based policy of withdrawing welfare for Aboriginals guilty of neglect. To avoid the accusation of racism, they had little choice but advocate that across all welfare recipients (not that the current government objects to that, quite the opposite).
    We wouldn’t be discussing conditional welfare without what’s happening in NT.

    I agree that there are many parents who have inadequate backgrounds for parenting (likely they were poorly parented themselves) – but punishing them through the withdrawal of welfare is likely to have some dire consequences for the children we are purporting to help. By all means agitate for food stamps or whatever socially demeaning mechanisms are required to satisfy the punishment urges of the straighteners, but we’ve heard “won’t somebody think of the children” for far too long, for far too many spurious reason from the right to take them seriously about their intentions.

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  21. DD – All I have said is that this ‘may’ be the best option. I don’t have an in-principle objection. By paying this money in the first place we are already outside purist classical liberalism. Unlike other countries, this is not an insurance scheme in which people gain some entitlement through their contributions, but a hand-out system in which the rights of beneficiaries are much weaker.

    If we are going to have such a welfare state, there is a case for ensuring that income transfers actually go to ‘welfare’ items and not grog or gambling.

    I hesistate only because governments do indeed stuff most things up. On the other hand, it is hard to see how the remote communities could get much worse, so it may be worth a try.

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  22. DAvid – it might actually be the other way around that Mal Brough has wanted to get more conditionality into family payments for a while and this crisis in indigenous communities has given him the opportunity to extend the idea more widely – I don’t know.

    I do think you are refusing to engage with the issue, though, when you continue to talk about ‘punishing’ people, using the withdrawal word rather than quarantining, and making accusations of racism etc.

    If you think that it is important to let parents do whatever they want with “their” money, even if it means that some kids don’t get fed, why don’t you just say so?

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  23. What an interesting debate you have aroused Andrew.

    Your initial assessment was of course right: Australians generally do not like passive unconditional welfare for able-bodied people of working age. .

    But all is not lost for social democrats. They can focus on the underlying market income inequalities before taxes and transfers and ask: are these inequalities fair, merit-based and consistent with good economic outcomes? This shifts the focus of debate from inequalities of outcome to inequalities of opportunity – an issue which still strikes a strong chord in the community because it taps two of our most strongly held beliefs- reward based on merit and an equal chance to succeed.

    Unfortunately Howard is too preoccupied with passive redistribution. Much of what he has done to relieve childhood poverty and encourage welfare to work is fine. Even his recent action to quarantine welfare payments may be OK provided it applies only to those parents who are clearly neglecting their children, although DD is right to remind you Andrew about ‘government failure’.

    My concern is that (a) Howard relies too much on the stick and not enough on the carrot (incentives) and (b) he is doing very little to address the underlying inequalities of opportunity in education, training, employment, location, health and housing.

    Will Rudd make a difference? I doubt it because he has put himself in a fiscal straightjacket (promising no tax increases, no net government borrowing and no out-spending of the Coalition). Unless he is prepared to withdraw many of Labor’s existing pro-rich programs (on capital gains, superannuation, home savings grants etc.) – which would be a very brave thing to do– he will have very little room for manoeuvre. /

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  24. backroom girl wrote:
    If you think that it is important to let parents do whatever they want with “their” money, even if it means that some kids don’t get fed, why don’t you just say so?
    Just on basic liberal principles, yes, they should do whatever they want with the money. We don’t impose those conditions on wage earners (although some of them do appalling things with their wages). It’s unfortunate that some kids aren’t getting fed, in the same way that others are getting clinically obese. I may well make some bad decisions for my kids too, but I appreciate that in a free society, I’m allowed to do it and I’m happy to extend that to everybody else.

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  25. Skimming peoples welfare to encourage “good” behaviour would not be so oppressive if the government allowed some real private sector alternatives for people. I think that removing the minimum wage and allowing the creation of low skill jobs has got to be part of the solution. In work income benefits (eg negative income tax) or community based charity should be used to fill in the gaps.

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  26. I couldn’t understand some parts of this article Will the public support conditional welfare?, but I guess I just need to check some more resources regarding this, because it sounds interesting.

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  27. David R says:
    “We don’t impose those conditions on wage earners (although some of them do appalling things with their wages).”

    But of course we do. Alimony sanctions from courts. Severe legal sanctions if a child is mistreated in such as not being fed etc.

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  28. JC, those sanctions are available regardless of whether you are receiving welfare or not. We’re talking about placing extra restrictions on welfare recipients simply because they are receiving welfare. It is doomed to failure (making some of the welfare worth less than other bits of it) as it will do nothing other than create a black market in goods the welfare recipients prefer to purchase. The compliance costs of micro-managing the behaviour of all these nasty single mother welfare cheats etc. will surely outweigh any social benefit you might gain.

    I must have missed the memo where welfare recipients were lower in standing than real estate agents, used car salesmen, tax cheats, telephone company executives and union bosses. What a strange world the conservative inhabit.

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