Tough Love and other strange stories…

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I have to admit that the use of the phrase ‘tough love’ to describe the latest wave of mostly punitive welfare reforms makes me cringe.

I can see exactly why the Government have adopted the phrase as their mantra  It makes a direct appeal to middle Australia as part of a wider strategy of evoking and reinforcing commonly held stereotypes about welfare recipients.

I’m sure it has resonated well with her focus groups, having been so expertly evoked and reinforced previously by John Howard - as part of his good cop/bad cop routine of harsh welfare to work measures for the ‘undeserving’ poor backed up by the kindler, gentler expansion of middle-class welfare.

To see a Labor Prime Minister intentionally trotting out statements which play to popular stereotypes of disadvantaged Australians is a disappointing state of affairs.

It engenders a response similar to the one I had to Kevin Rudd’s advocacy of punitive measures established by the Howard Government as part of the Northern Territory intervention.

However, looking over the ‘mixed bag’ of labour market participation measures in the budget this week has reinforced for me what it really is about the misuse of the phrase ‘tough love’ that really bothers me.

It’s not the fact that we expect the Prime Minister to know better and aspire to higher things.

It is quite simply the way that reinforcing the negative stereotypes of those on income support – single parents, people with a disability, the older and long-term unemployed – only serves to make their efforts to secure work so much harder.

For a Government that I believe genuinely wants to see more people in the workforce putting out such a negative message so strongly is incredibly counter-productive and self-defeating.

I am concerned it could have a much stronger impact on the employment prospects of those affected than the positive labour market measures in the budget.

There are actually some good ideas and some promising programs in the budget to address some of the significant barriers to workforce participation faced by some of the most marginalised groups in our society.

It is unfortunate that the number of places for people who will be helped by these programs is woefully small, particularly when compared to the much larger number of people who will be punished by the new participation requirements. (For example, there are only 10,000 employer wage subsidies to be shared among 350,000 long-term unemployed, and no detail on how the employer bidding process will work).

The big problem is that if our real target is to increase participation and productivity and to give marginalised individuals and families a real chance to ‘benefit from the dignity of work’ then our primary task has to be to address labour market factors.

This is where we urgently need a bit of sense in the welfare debate.

Obviously one of the biggest labour market challenges we face is the large and growing gap between the kinds of skilled workers demanded by our growth industries and the skills (or lack of them) of those on income support payments during a time of low unemployment.

Skilling up our labour force is not something that can be fixed overnight (or in a six week ‘work ready’ course). It will require a sustained effort in education and training over a number of years, and the budget goes some way towards making this investment.

In the context of this skills gap however, it is not obvious how coercive measures that supposedly force unskilled people from disadvantaged backgrounds to try even harder is going to solve our labour market problems.

Furthermore, when we put the issue of the skills gap to one side and listen to the evidence about the experiences of those on income support who have been consistently knocked back from jobs for which they have skills and capability another important factor clearly emerges.

The biggest barrier is not the reluctance of these people to work, it is the reluctance of employers to take the 'risk' of employing them.

This is the reason why this ‘tough love’ rhetoric is so counter-productive.

Reinforcing these stereotypes and building up the myths about the unemployed inevitably strengthens the negative attitudes that employers hold towards them.

A survey of employers undertaken by the Department of Employment and Workplace relations in 2008 found widespread reluctance to consider employing long term unemployed people, people with disabilities, and mature age people.

This is a significant barrier that the government should be taking measures to address, rather than strengthen.

Employers are risk adverse and weigh up the options and assess the risks before employing someone. This is where government programs that offer information and support, offer on the job training, mentoring for both the employee and the employer, and offer wage subsidies can have a much more positive impact on outcomes that the types of disconnected training courses we’ve seen in the past.

However the task of these employer outreach programs is made so much harder when they are being framed within a wider narrative that says these people are lazy and reluctant to work.
We need employers to be weighing up the real issues when they consider these new opportunities, not paying undue attention to rhetorical ones.

By cutting payments, forcing people to participate in yet more interviews or meaningless training and by threatening them with starvation the Government perpetuates the view that the unemployed are reluctant to do anything unless they are coerced into it.

In the face of that strong, negative message, it is a little hard to see what level of success new initiatives for industry liaison and support programs are going to have.

Some little known welfare facts:
• 56% of DSP recipients and 32% of NSA recipients are over 45 years old
• Fastest growing DSP categories are mental illnesses 28% and intellectual disabilities 11%
• 85% of single parent pensioners are over 25yo, only 2-3% teenage mums
• 31% are already employed (mostly part-time) despite 60% have a preschool child

The profile of people on income support is increasingly disadvantaged:
• 37% have a severe disability (ie qualify for DSP)
• 14% long-term unemployed (over 12 months)
• 17% caring for preschool children
• 7% have a disability but are on NSA (ie partial capacity to work)
• There are 38,000 sole parent families on NSA / YA