Welfare recipients get the bad end of the stick

Published Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 2011

Each year we spend billions of dollars on helping people in need. Then they and their lobby groups and the politicians who claim to speak on their behalves complain that it’s not enough. We call it a Budget.

This year’s Budget includes money to help people suffering from a disability back into work, money to help families on above average wages manage the cost of a family and money for people who live in remote areas to live better. Are they glad of it? Apparently not. There’s either too little, the targeting is too judgmental or they still don’t ‘feel’ rich.

It’s hard to imagine our society without its unwieldy welfare component these days. As a tax payer it’s easy to feel indignant. But really it’s welfare recipients who get the bad end of the stick.

Our welfare system has evolved as a way to make sure the humans around us are ok. It’s not like we were letting people die willy nilly in the days before we had this system; back then families looked after their members, friendly societies were formed to take care of each other, churches, charities and even the Dickens’ horrible workhouses were created for that purpose. Though our attempts have been variously flawed, the will to help has always been there.

These decentralised welfare arrangements demanded a high degree of personal accountability from the recipients. And when state and then commonwealth aged pensions were introduced in Australia they were awarded only to ‘people of good character’.

It is a testament to our generous human hearts that the payments later became unconditional. To that soft organ and the ease of spending other people’s money.

Children quickly become accustomed to receiving an allowance. Adults likewise. We simply factor it into our plans and move on. Impose conditions of work or mutual obligation on a child used to free pocket money and watch the primal human sense of justice well up at your seemingly arbitrary wielding of power. As a parent you might have some hope of using your love and authority to overcome the ensuing stalemate. But what hope does a bunch of faceless taxpayers going by the amorphous name ‘the state’ have? Childish tears are hard to resist – voter attrition even harder.

There’s another side to the arrangement as well: convenience. Which of us really enjoys the awkward transaction of direct charity? The distance between the donor and the recipient is a positive boon for genuine philanthropists.

Unfortunately this combination of circumstances leads to a situation which is neither good for the donor-tax payer or for the welfare recipient.

In 2002 I lived in a heavily welfare dependent suburb of West Berlin. Once a working class suburb, high unemployment and failed integration have made it a welfare-class suburb instead.

I used to drink in the local bar-and-laundromat – the favourite hang of the idle local youth. I was poor and this was before Germany’s Hartz IV welfare reform, when the benefits were bountiful. While the local kids bought brand new furniture from their government ‘necessities’ allowance, I bought and schlepped a ratty old couch from a charity store. I confess, I had entitlement envy.

But as I got to know the locals better, one thing became very clear: my wealth and opportunity lay in my education, which enabled me to understand the world, and in my experience of work, which helped me find more of it.

The kids were dogged by the frustration at not being able to change their situation. They lived in a world of beautiful things which were utterly out of reach to them – when I got sick of being poor I set about finding more and better work. When they wanted more money they had only two options: make babies or steal things. They not only didn’t have the skills to improve their situations significantly, they didn’t have the essential skill which helps people acquire the skills – the habit of work.

Eventually I got jack of that life and left to get a real job and live in a nice middle class suburb. The people I met in the Berlin laundromat will never have that luxury. That’s the harm we cause through arms’ length welfare.

Tying welfare to work and trying to re-instill a sense of mutual obligation is a step in the right direction. Because it is not the taxpayers whose money is taken from them who suffer most from this welfare system, but the people it is meant to protect.

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