abstract image of a screaming face

Image: andrew hale (flickr)

Fear and social assistance: How wider social anxieties give way to personified fears

8th December 2017

This blog was produced as part of our seminar series: Governance and the power of fear, which runs until 5 December 2017.

Justifications for surveillance, especially government surveillance, often evoke the interconnecting logics of fear and security. Campaigns against crime, terrorism, and increasingly migration are just some cases in point; however, fear, according to Zygmunt Bauman, is pervasive in modern societies even in the absence of clear threats. Specifically, he states, some formations of fear have no clear origin; they are pervasive, emerging from globalized conditions that are marked by uncertainty, fragmentation, and precariousness. Thus, fear can influence governance even in cases where it is not a clear driver of regulatory action.

Bauman suggests that the experiences of vulnerable people can illuminate the effects of broader societal shifts. Recent calls to drug test welfare recipients in Australia offers a case in point: although citizens seeking social assistance are typically not cast as dangers to national security or public safety, appeals used to justify the surveillance of these populations often draw upon anxieties around who is understood as deserving of state support.

The Surveillance of Welfare Recipients in the United States

The welfare system in the United States is actually an assemblage of monitoring and service mechanisms that can include at-home visits, client and health information systems, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka SNAP), and cash benefits as part of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Common conditions of receiving state assistance entail observation and judgment of recipients’ purchases, paid work, job searches, and even parenting practices. As detailed by Torin Monahan, these systems generate, triangulate and analyse data on their needs and assets, but also assess their credibility. In other words, social assistance seekers must manage and negotiate multiple forms of surveillance, which render them suspect, particularly on moral grounds. Drug testing is just one of the many surveillance practices that are intended to make them—that is, their bodies and their character—transparent and open to scrutiny.

By focusing on the individual behavior rather than the conditions that shape their existence, these systems emphasise messages of individual responsibility and self-blame as well as fears of noncompliance. More private actors have become involved in welfare monitoring and delivery, contributing to an institutionalized form of what some scholars call “poverty capitalism”—that is, the financial exploitation of the poor through contractual arrangements in which low-income persons become the source of income generation through the provision of services as well as through service fee payments. These conditions threat to dehumanise recipients and to encourage noncompliance with the regulatory terms of welfare systems, especially the intensive surveillance requirements that are designed to catch failures, such as the costly practice of drug testing—which has only shown that welfare recipients overwhelmingly tend to test negative for illicit drugs.

Proposals to Drug Test Social Assistance Recipients in Australia

The Australian rhetoric and justification for drug testing welfare recipients is distinctly different from the United States. Social Services Minister Christian Porter has framed the proposal as “entirely focused on helping job seekers overcome drug problems,” not about “penalising or stigmatising” them.

In contrast to the United States, the articulated reasons for drug testing social welfare beneficiaries in Australia are behaviour change—often alongside incorrect characterisations that drug testing regimes offer an “evidence-based” approach. Although not as overtly punitive as U.S. schemes, the drug testing trials and their stated aims can yield similarly fearful dynamics. In fact, we need not look far back into Australia’s history to see that many government interventions intended to benefit vulnerable and marginalised populations have yielded detrimental and fearful outcomes for their so-called beneficiaries.

The legislation would introduce a drug testing trial for 5,000 people in three locations, beginning on January 1, 2018. In order to receive Newstart Allowance and Youth Allowance payments, unemployed people must agree to being randomly tested for illicit drugs. The explanatory memorandum states it is “improve a recipient’s capacity to find employment or participate in education or training by identifying people with drug use issues and assisting them to undertake treatment,” underscoring the point that “substance abuse is a major barrier to social and economic participation and is not consistent with community expectations around receiving taxpayer funded welfare payments.”

The program, by subjecting all recipients to testing, casts their behaviour as the cause for their lack of full employment, disregarding broader trends that indicate persistent and growing underemployment in Australia. Further, the entire program renders them suspect on moral grounds, subjecting to punishments if they fail to comply.

The Australian rhetoric supporting the trial subscribes to some of the same ideologies as featured in the U.S. example. First, it relies on a presumption of moral failing among the poor who need state assistance, channelling it as an individualised fault that can and should be changed through state intervention. Second, with the requirements of drug testing (which requires contacting a testing company) and the BasicsCard, it has the potential to invite greater investment in the surveillance mechanisms that are increasingly embraced by welfare systems.

Conclusions: Where Do We Go from Here?

Calls to increase the surveillance of social welfare recipients, particularly through the inclusion of drug testing, provides insight into governance in the contemporary moment: that is, it reveals how wider social anxieties can materialize in systems that induce embodied fear—and punishment—among those they claim to assist.

Further, surveillance systems prompt a regulatory focus on these individualized bodies, often drawing public attention away from the machinery that contributes to their stigmatization. People receiving social support are expected to be transparent, yet the systems that scrutinize them are rarely rendered visible.

This case offers a word of caution: When we tackle questions of fear, we must be careful not to instrumentalise fear as merely an emotion that becomes either a driver or an effect of regulation. Instead, we need to think carefully and critically about how fear is part of contemporary life, how inequality mediates these dynamics, and what their implications are for the pursuit of more just forms of governance.

Kate Henne is an Associate Professor and ARC DECRA Fellow in the School of Regulation and Global Governance

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