Boosting welfare payments and rolling out more services isn’t the answer to fighting poverty, the federal government has warned, as it urges Australians to take a different tack in fixing the problem.
Human Services Minister Alan Tudge instead has mapped out a five-pronged approach to help more than three million Australians – including 731,000 children – who are living in poverty.
Three decades after former prime minister Bob Hawke declared no child would live in poverty by 1990, Mr Tudge described entrenched disadvantage and impoverishment as arguably the most important challenge facing Australia.
“We cannot solve it by doubling the number of services again. We cannot solve it by having another step-increase in welfare payments,” he said during a speech in Sydney on Thursday.
“We need collectively to put our minds to the underlying factors which have changed since Hawke’s day and be clear-eyed about how we tackle them.”
Couples on unemployment benefits with two children receive up to 38 per cent more today in real terms than they would’ve 30 years ago, while a single parent on Newstart with two kids gets up to 67 per cent more.
A single person on unemployment benefits without kids receives about 10 per cent more.
“Today, an unemployed couple with three children would receive about $48,000 in welfare payments each year. This is the equivalent to a $60,000 salary,” Mr Tudge said.
“On top of that, they may be eligible for a public house and many other free services.”
The figures quoted were not a lot of money, but nor were they complete deprivation.
“It is a good safety net to ensure that no one need go hungry or without clothing, shelter and the basics,” the minister said.
Hikes to welfare payments had been complemented by a significant boost to social services during the past 30 years.
A complete lack of income was not always the problem but rather a “general dysfunction” which meant children’s potential was unable to be maximised.
More than 225,000 children suffered abuse or neglect or were at risk of suffering in the past year, about 29,000 were homeless at some stage, and one in eight kids lived in a jobless household.
“This is the real impoverishment today and comes about despite the increases in welfare payments, increases in social services and an economy which has grown for 25 years straight.”
Mr Tudge argued the need to tackle family breakdown, financial capability, educational failure and “worklessness”, repeating his well-trodden catchcry that the best form of welfare was a job.
He also pleaded the case for controversial substance abuse measures aimed at welfare recipients, including drug tests, cashless welfare cards and cracking down on using addiction as an excuse for failing job-seeking obligations.
“If more money was the answer, we would have solved many of the problems years ago,” the minister said.
Mr Tudge would like to see business groups, welfare lobby ACOSS, and other groups examine the underlying issues of modern impoverishment as much as they argue for higher payments.