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Don't forget the public's reality while debating the ethics of welfare policy

By Kirsten Edwards - posted Monday, 15 January 2001

A common phrase in the US right now – at least amongst those in the halls of academia and politics - is "the welfare debate is over". The issue may regain prominence in the US in the event of the predicted economic down-turn, but for now, welfare activists who fought against "the end of welfare as we know it" concede they have lost – ironically to Bill Clinton who as a President may have done more to harm the US "welfare state" than any Republican President since WWII (but that subjects merits a different article). This article is not a contribution to the Welfare debate itself but some thoughts, based on the US experience, on how to shape it, so that a debate which is only just starting up in Australia is not over before it has begun.

In last month’s edition Pamela Kinnear and Anna Yeatman ask important and valuable questions about the nature of civic society, social responsibility and the development of an autonomous individual. Chris Evans, Meg Lees and Michael Raper raise interesting issues about governmental priories and resource allocation. To that I would add that in the long run the US sponsored trend towards populist conservatism is a dangerous and brutal one and a legitimate target for academic criticism. The value of the unquestioned ‘Calvinist work ethic’ also requires some rigorous and critical examination. My concern, however, is that conducting the welfare debate at this level is a losing strategy. In the short term I believe that the rhetorical tools of the populist conservatives can also be used effectively by welfare sympathizers.

Cynical? Yes, but also morally defensible. Failure to truly engage prejudice as well as reason leads to advocates trading blows at arms length. And reason never wins at a distance. The oft-used stereotype of ‘latte-drinking and chardonnay-sipping politically correct cartels of academic lezbollahs’ has currency for a reason. The first is a perception that those who frame and conduct public debates don’t truly listen, they merely chatter. The second is over reliance on analysis. As Graham Young comments about blue-collar workers, for most people "experience rather than analysis is the peak of knowing".


The debate must be framed with these considerations in mind. I suggest attention be focused on three things

  1. Concentrating on key points of intersection – where the debate comes to the crunch.
  2. Conducting and disseminating solid empirical work.
  3. Utilizing people’s experience. Experiential opinion is informed by aesthetics and images. The images must be harnessed effectively to capture the popular imagination.

What are these "key points of intersection"?

  1. Free Riders
  2. Any provision of a public benefit is vulnerable to a free rider problem – those who don’t "deserve" the benefit but cheat and get it anyway. In the welfare debate there are those who could easily get work but choose not to – "job snobs" preferring to watch soap operas/ surf all day /smoke dope at Byron Bay than do a hard days yakka. People respond to images of free riders because they know them to be true – everyone has a welfare family next door, a cynical friend working at Centerlink or a story they heard at a party that confirms the suspicion that there are dole bludgers out there.

    If you add a media image to a popular conception it becomes a "truth" in the popular psyche. There is huge wealth of sociological and legal literature about informational and reputational cascades, which confirms this intuitive phenomenon. In the US Ronald Reagan invented the myth of a Cadillac-driving Welfare Queen. In Australia we have A Current Affair, 60 Minutes and Pauline to helpfully provide us with pictures of people smoking dope, surfing etc. Talk to anyone about welfare and count how long it takes for this image to turn up. You can say the problem is exaggerated but it is pointless to deny it, because bludgers are out there.

    So what can be done? First, address the issue head-on by conducting reliable and persuasive empirical research about the prevalence of welfare cheats versus real needs, and the cost of these cheats. Secondly discuss strategies to reduce the free-rider problem. The public has prioritized this issue. Don’t tell them that their priorities are wrong (although ultimately I believe they are), listen and address them.

    Thirdly, counter image. In the US the New York Times, the New Yorker and other progressive publications created the welfare super-woman: profiles of women who were either on welfare but worked tirelessly to meet their families needs or women who tried to work but couldn’t juggle child care, health issues and demeaning work. There were pictures and accounts of women getting up at 5am and working endlessly to negotiate difficult needs and responsibilities in brutal urban environments. Similar messages can be derived from the incredible popularity of the grindingly depressing Oprah selections. People will respond strongly and positively if you can convince them that the poor are not idle and are not different, in fact they have dreams, needs and aspirations just like anyone else. We need to use images and experiences to construct an aesthetic bridge between the "dole bludger" and the "Ozzie battler" – and to reveal the similarities, context and humanity of both.

  3. Welfare Dependence
  4. Clever dismantlers of welfare systems use the ‘tough love’ approach. They leave the dole bludger conception out there but introduce the notion that they want people off welfare for their own good. They discuss the psychic income of real work and self-reliance and contrast it to the crushing self-esteem blow of long-term unemployment and welfare dependence.

    This image is powerful because it is right. As Noel Pearson has articulated, long-term welfare dependence can destroy individual aspirations and condemn entire communities to poverty and despair. I also agree that blindly throwing money at people can be almost genocidal in its callous neglect of individual and community needs. This nuanced and important viewpoint has been effectively hijacked by the ‘white arm bands’ to justify punitive measures. Many of the "See? We are doing it for your own good – even Noel Pearson agrees with us" crowd are obviously disingenuous but they are doing well at seeming like the good guys.

    The trick here is getting the government to commit to self-esteem building as a key objective and hold them to it. Good work has been done in pointing out that many current work-to-welfare projects have empirically failed to deliver on this goal. Just giving up on them, however, can not be the answer. Alternatives need to be suggested that show how to address and to avoid the dependency trap.

    Welfare dependence is usually confined to small communities with unique needs (eg a town with the main industry destroyed, certain Indigenous communities). Successful solutions need to be community-based rather than across the board. For example, some schemes devised and performed by Indigenous groups have been very successful. Highlight the success stories and promote the ‘small is beautiful’ approach.

    Again, empirical work is helpful. For example, the extent of welfare dependence is almost always overstated – in the US solid empirical research discovered long-term welfare use was minimal, families spawning generations on welfare were rare and the average stay on the rolls was only 18 months. As Kinnear points out – most people on welfare have worked before and will work again – and they pay taxes. Prove this and get it out there.

  5. But whose fault is it? People like to allocate blame – that’s what the "job snobs" line was all about. But as we all know there are plenty of reasons why some people just can’t work. Now we can argue that there are different ways to contribute to society and production is only one of them but again this is a long-term strategy.

Instead contradictions within those who attack welfare recipients should be exposed. For example, many in the Liberal government promote more free trade. While many people agree free trade is a key way of ensuring long-term national and global prosperity, in the short term it means down-scaling or eliminating inefficient industries and that means unemployment. As Kinnear points out, people need to be reminded that governmental decisions as well as individual ones lead to unemployment. Ditto interest rates and inflation – there are economic forecasts and policy statements out there that coldly discuss what level of unemployment should be tolerated. I am wary of promoting high-level economic discussion but people need to be told that there is a deliberate government policy to keep a certain number of people unemployed and that gives rise to a concomitant governmental obligation to provide for people.

But many contradictions are considerably less complicated. For example – everyone likes to bash single mums for having more kids and pushing up the welfare check and many suggest "cutting them off". But the same people also like to complain about women in the workplace and "family values these days" – latchkey kids, television and video game dependence, junk food and lack of parental supervision. So put these people to the test – do they want mothers staying at home, cooking and supervising and devising wholesome games or do they want them at work?

In the US a number of single parent pension critics were stopped in their tracks when it was pointed out that the more involved a parent is with their child, the less likely the children are to take drugs or become involved in crime. Warranted or not, a number people still have the bias that a working mother is not an involved mother. Of course, people will still carry on about sexual irresponsibility but what’s done is done. Those who propose that welfare be stopped for such reasons face two choices: punish children for their parents’ misdeeds; or remove children from the home altogether. That is what Newt Gingrich tried to do and he lost all credibility pretty quickly, which brings us to…

4) Disputes need bad guys. The welfare lobby has made a good start with vivid images of the disabled receiving (or not receiving) perplexing mail and vicious sanctions. A great contrast to the warm and fuzzy approach to business leaders who, according to the government, just need a little help and understanding to be gently nudged towards their obligations. Obviously the Peter Reith phone card scandal was a solid gold bonus and the contrast of his attitude to welfare cheats was handled well. The bovver-boy tactics of Tony Abbott here also help.

The most successful American example is Newt Gingrich. He was successfully portrayed as a volatile misanthrope for two reasons: one he said children of single mothers were often better off in orphanages and two, he left his wife when she had cancer. Because of these factors, and a few others, Gingrich came to be seen as such a baddie that his name was mud in American politics. Hillary Clinton went out of her way to link her Senate opponent to him in her recent campaign – obviously with some success. Now I am not suggesting anyone should go after the marital behavior of any particular politician – Bob Ellis showed the folly of that approach.


But the Gingrich example is valuable in itself because people in Australia have a well-founded reluctance to "become like America" as Gerard Mullins has pointed out in a different context. There is a wealth of evidence in the US about the danger of welfare reform and the impact of punitive sanctions on marginalized groups. Advocates should farm these horror stories.

But to end on a lighter note, there is no need for the debate to be dark and depressing all the time. Nothing boosts John Laws complaints about "bleating do-gooders" more than shrill, indignant or overly earnest talking heads constantly whining about Government insensitivity (although how "do-gooder" can be considered an insult is still beyond me). Activists in the US have used humor and media images to great effect. Community organizers delivered over a thousand broken wristwatches to Congress to protest against time-limited benefits to send their message to "stop the clock". When advocates discovered that "the man in the house rule" (where benefits to single mothers are terminated if she has a man living in the house) was invoked if there was just a recent picture of a man on the wall, they copied thousands of pictures of Ronald Reagan for welfare recipients to plaster on their wall with pride (I guess Bill Clinton was considered too risky an option – just too possible he was the father).

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About the Author

Kirsten Edwards is a Fulbright Scholar currently researching and teaching law at an American university. She also works as a volunteer lawyer at a soup kitchen and a domestic violence service and as a law teacher at a juvenile detention centre but all the community service in the world can’t seem to get her a boyfriend.

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