Altman_John_2015

Altman_John_2015

Will the healthy welfare card be healthy?

25th February 2016

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At the broadest level Professor Altman’s research focuses on social justice and human rights for minority groups globally. More particularly, appropriate economic development and associated policy for Indigenous Australia

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In this trending article in The Reporter, Honorary Professor Jon Altman looks at whether the healthy welfare card, a debit card where 80 per cent of the welfare payments of designated recipients is deposited, will help those on welfare at all.

By Jon Altman
After prolonged debate, deliberation and delay, the Healthy Welfare Card will soon be launched at two trial sites in remote Australia.

At its simplest, the Heathy Welfare Card is a debit card where 80 per cent of the welfare payments of designated recipients is deposited.

The card is programmed to disallow the purchase of alcohol and none of the balance can be converted to cash.

While the card itself is ‘cashless’, welfare recipients will be able to use 20 per cent of their entitlements (plus any other income that can be earned, borrowed, begged or received as a gift) as cash.

The policy logic of the card appears to be that if 80 per cent of welfare income cannot be used to purchase alcohol or cashed out to purchase illicit drugs, alcohol, gambling products or services, then people will lead healthier and more productive lives.

To test this, the card is being trialled for 12 months and will then be rigorously and independently evaluated.

The 2015 Federal Budget allocated $2.7 million to the trial, although it is unlikely this sum includes bureaucratic and technological set up or evaluation costs.

The card has its immediate origins in the Abbott Government-commissioned Indigenous Jobs and Training Review, chaired by mining magnate Andrew Forrest in 2014.

The review recommended the Healthy Welfare Card and 100 per cent quarantining of welfare.

Recognising that even in the 21st Century people need some cash, quarantining was reduced to 80 per cent.

The card has links to the BasicsCard introduced as part of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Intervention in 2007.

BasicsCard only quarantines 50 per cent of income, although that can be increased.

It is also more restrictive.

It cannot be used to purchase alcohol, tobacco, pornography or for gambling.

BasicsCard was evaluated by a team including ANU social scientists.

The evaluation report found no conclusive evidence that BasicsCard - mainly targeting over 20,000 Indigenous Australians - made a difference to health and wellbeing. In many cases, it made life harder for welfare recipients.

Initial support countered by opposition

The main spruikers for the card are a powerful triumvirate comprising Forrest, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister Alan Tudge and academic Marcia Langton.

BasicsCard cost an estimated $1 billion to 30 June 2015.

Despite adverse review findings, it will continue to 2017 costing $150 million more.

The Healthy Welfare Card has been controversial and the subject of a rushed Senate Inquiry.

While there has been some initial support for the card’s introduction in three identified pilot regions, there has also been opposition.

Moree, NSW, has withdrawn as a candidate; communities in the East Kimberley are divided; and even in Ceduna, South Australia - where the first pilot is scheduled - there are deep community divisions.

The main spruikers for the card are a powerful triumvirate comprising Forrest, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister Alan Tudge and academic Marcia Langton.

All insist it is not paternalistic, it is not income management and it will make a significant difference.

However, while the Forrest Review promoted the card as “empowering”, it is a paternalistic and demeaning measure imposed without discretion.

There is concern the card is discriminatory, targeting regions where most of the population is Indigenous. In the Ceduna region, more than 70 per cent of the targeted population is Indigenous.

Tokenistic tinkering not seismic change

It is a legacy itself of the cosy relationship between Tony Abbott and Forrest, a mining magnate empowered to craft social policy.

There is also concern this attempt to micromanage the expenditure patterns of those on welfare will be ineffective and expensive, just like BasicsCard.

Despite all the talk about evaluation after 12 months, meaningful assessment will be impossible because the impact of the card alone will not be isolatable, given its introduction alongside the provision of extra services.

Recent history shows adverse evaluation findings do not see policy changes.

Once new institutional architecture is put in place political and bureaucratic inertia sets in quickly.

There is also an increasing tendency for vested interests who promote policy innovation to escape accountability for policy failures.

The Forrest Review pleaded for seismic change, not incrementalism, to address Indigenous disadvantage.

But tinkering with people’s expenditures, rather than addressing complex structural issues with deep historical legacy, strikes me as tokenistic.

This raises questions of why the Turnbull Government has pressed ahead with this risky venture.

It is a legacy itself of the cosy relationship between Tony Abbott and Forrest, a mining magnate empowered to craft social policy.

Jon Altman FASSA is an honorary professor at the Regulatory Institutions Network at ANU. He is also research professor at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Melbourne.

This article was originally published in the ANU Reporter

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet