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Welfare solution exists in a circle

By Vern Hughes - posted Thursday, 29 September 2016


Let's be clear: our political class has no idea how to tackle welfare dependency.  We have had steady growth in long-term welfare dependency under both Liberal and Labor administrations for the past three decades. Both parties have shared a flawed assumption that has escaped scrutiny for these thirty years - that welfare state managerialism can repair damaged and disadvantaged lives and reduce welfare dependency. It can't.

Social Services Minister Christian Porter disclosed last week, seemingly without embarrassment,  that he had ‘invested’ $33m of taxpayers’ money in a report from PriceWaterhouseCoopers which tells him that some people face a lifetime of welfare dependency and that someone really should do something about it.

This disclosure tells us a lot about the now incestuous relationship between big consulting firms and the way things are done in Canberra. It tells us precisely nothing about how welfare dependency might be reduced. Porter seemed genuinely excited about something he called ‘modelling’ as if managerial knowledge of the trajectory of welfare dependency somehow meant it could be ‘prevented’ if only the ‘data’ could be, well, used.

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The reality is that welfare managerialism is both the cause and consequence of extensive welfare dependency. Both Liberal and Labor strands of the political class not only cannot comprehend this, they enmesh themselves further in the quagmire the more they try to 'do something' about it. In indigenous communities, our political class has learnt, albeit very slowly and reluctantly, that managerialism doesn’t necessarily alleviate indigenous disadvantage; it can paralyse its ‘clients’ in a state of demoralized passivity. But, curiously, when the political class turns to white communities, this insight is thrown out the window and faith in managerial wand-waving is renewed.

Porter wants ‘interventions’ that prevent young carers, parents and students from entering long periods of welfare dependency. By ‘interventions’ he means the drawing up of management plans by an army of case managers, section managers, employment advisers, school liaison officers, service coordination managers and family liaison officers  to place these people in the labour market and keep them there – the labour market being the place, apparently, that is the source of self-worth and social connection (though precisely how unskilled, menial, and repetitive tasks supply self-worth and social connection to fragile, harried young people is not usually specified).

Labor has shared Porter’s assumptions about the labour market since its formation in 1891. As befits a party of labour, it reduces social well-being and capacity to ‘employment’. The strange identification by both neo-liberals and welfare statists of labour market participation with social participation reflects the joint failure of Right and Left to grasp the relational in social policy.

Only personal and social relationships of trust, belonging and mutual support can draw damaged individuals out of welfare dependency. These relationships cannot be created or even facilitated by governments or its contracted welfare services. They can however be facilitated by individuals and groups in civil society, around each person, and governments may, if they are smart, encourage and support this process, or they may ignore and prevent it.

From the disability movement, the concept of Circles of Support, or Circles of Friends, is the key to thinking about welfare reform in relational rather than managerial terms. Creation of an intentional circle of family, friends, neighbours, shopkeepers and mentors can be created around each person, as has been developed widely in the disability scene in the post-institutionalisation era.

Governments can make eligibility for welfare payments conditional upon participation in a circle of this kind, with the 'planning' of social and economic participation undertaken by the circle. Circles can be resourced and supported by governments, but critically, the circles' work cannot be undertaken by service providers, case managers, government officials or any of the other operatives in the welfare industry.

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Porter has allocated $100m for organizations to come up with solutions. In reality, this means the money will go to welfare agencies to continue the failed programs they are familiar with, undertaken by NGO sector bureaucrats who mirror the assumptions and culture of public sector bureaucrats.

There is an alternative. The process of facilitating ‘informal’ and ‘natural’ supports for at-risk people through circles has 25 years of evidence now behind it. It provides the micro-social infrastructure around which to build supports and strategies that allow civil society, not governments, to draw people with dependencies back into society. The ghastly experiment with government-sponsored Mutual Obligation has been a costly and humiliating failure. There is nothing mutual or reciprocal between a government and an individual – the asymmetries in information and power are too great. Mutual Obligation requirements from governments are invariably coercive.

Mutual obligation in civil society, mediated through a Circle of Friends, is a different matter. We have a vast amount of scholarly and anecdotal evidence that tells us that people are less likely to cheat on a person they know than on an unknown and distant government official. Yet our political class insists on drawing up social policy that privileges the unknown and impersonal and ignores the familial and civil. 

Can our political class be coaxed to discover civil society and the relational in social policy? We will see.

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About the Author

Vern Hughes is Secretary of the National Federation of Parents Families and Carers and Director of the Centre for Civil Society and has been Australia's leading advocate for civil society over a 20-year period. He has been a writer, practitioner and networker in social enterprise, church, community, disability and co-operative movements. He is a former Executive Officer of South Kingsville Health Services Co-operative (Australia's only community-owned primary health care centre), a former Director of Hotham Mission in the Uniting Church, the founder of the Social Entrepreneurs Network, and a former Director of the Co-operative Federation of Victoria. He is also a writer and columnist on civil society, social policy and political reform issues.

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