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To each according to need

By John Tomlinson - posted Friday, 23 March 2012

In 1875, in his Critique of the Gotha Program Karl Marx suggested that in a higher state of communism a guiding principle of the system of allocation should be "From each according to ability, to each according to need." Throughout the period of the 1950s to the late 1980s Commonwealth government ministers responsible for social services asserted that their government "assisted everyone in need".

Provided one did not look too closely at the legislation and the administration of federal income maintenance then it did appear that most people experiencing financial hardship could obtain assistance of one kind or another.

It had taken until the 1940s for people of Asian descent to be provided with social services –until the 1960s before city-dwelling Aborigines and the 1970s for their relatives living in rural and remote regions to be included. From 1911 until 1973, when Bill Hayden abolished the ruling, people could be refused social services on the basis that they were "not deemed worthy to receive the payment". By the mid 1960s the bulk of people denied payment in such circumstances had a chronic alcohol problem.


From 1947 until the mid 1980s there existed a Special Benefit paid to people in necessitous circumstances who, for reasons such as not meeting residence requirements, could not be paid another benefit or pension. This Special Benefit operated much like the French Minimum Insertion Benefit in that it inserted an income floor below which people would not fall.

In Australia, there was not the determination to ensure that no one missed out and as a result only "the worthy" were granted the Special Benefit. People applying for unemployment benefit who could not establish they had previously been in employment, or who were unable to prove they were fit, able, ready and willing to work were not considered for Special Benefit. Nor were those who, on applying for an Invalid Pension, failed to convince the Commonwealth Medical Officer that they were 85% incapacitated. Social service officers used their largely unmonitored discretion to decide whom to help and whom to refuse assistance. Such a situation has all the moral hazards of giving the police the power to intervene when they "have reasonable suspicion that a crime is about to occur."

The contradiction here was that whilst the Special Benefit could, under the legislation and the regulations, be paid to everyone in straightened financial circumstances – it was not. There were people who by any measure were in financial need who were not assisted. Then as now, the Australian government does not assist everyone in financial need.

International lessons

Some recent international events bring home to us that the shame of the poor house did not dissipate at the beginning of the 20th century. On the 22nd February 2012 Tokyo police discovered 3 bodies a mother, a father (in their 60s) and their 30-year-old son. They had died 2 months earlier of starvation preferring that to asking for help. ("Family choose to die rather than ask for help." The Dominion Post, page B3). On that same day this paper's page 1 lead story covered the finding of a Wellington City Council tenant's body in his flat. He was believed to have died 8 months previously.

The stigma of asking for assistance is what governments around the world rely upon to deter people from applying for financial assistance. Generating such stigma can't be left to happenchance; governments work hard to ensure the fear of stigma does not fade. The Dominion Post of the 28th February 2012 began its page 1 lead story with the sentence "Sweeping changes implementing National's promise to crackdown on DPB (single) mothers and jobless teens are underway- and the government warns that sickness and invalid beneficiaries are next in its sights."


Many of the changes which the conservative Nationals in Aotearoa are inflicting upon their low income earners and beneficiaries have already been implemented by Coalition or Labor administrations in Australia. The antecedents of such "welfare tightening" can be directly traced back to Tony Blair's Third Way manoeuvres, Bill Clinton's 1996 cuts to Aid to Dependent Children, to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan and all of them inspired in one way or another by the anti- Keynesian economics of Frederick Hayek and Milton Friedman.

I remember in the early 1980s one of my colleagues, Alec Pemberton, urging me to join with him in writing a critique of the dark forces of reaction he saw emerging which he felt would tear down much of the social security system that had evolved and become more generous throughout the 20th Century. I thought at the time that the small setbacks I was observing in income support provision were a minor hiccup. How wrong I was.

Precarious employment and security

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About the Author

Dr John Tomlison is a visiting scholar at QUT.

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