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