This week is Anti-Poverty Week, and it is fitting in this political climate that we should again find ourselves talking about the cashless debit card.
The government's Social Security Guide states that the aim of the cashless debit card trial starting in 2016 is, "to help stabilise the finances and lives of vulnerable families, ensure welfare payments are used as intended, encourage socially responsible behaviour, and reduce money available for alcohol and gambling in an effort to reduce social dysfunction where it exists in some communities."
This card quarantines 80 per cent of a welfare recipient's benefit payment and 100 per cent of lump sum payments in a restricted bank account with a debit card that does not allow cash withdrawals or the purchase of products from stores that sell alcohol or gambling products. The trial has been rolled out across the Ceduna, East Kimberley, Goldfields, Bundaberg and Hervey Bay regions.
Let's look at the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay region as a snapshot. Perhaps the most shocking figures in the government-commissioned University of Adelaide's baseline report into the CDC Trial, released in May 2020, is that 48 per cent of the residents in the Hinkler electorate are classed in the lowest group (decile) of the index of relative socio-economic disadvantage (ISRD) and 78 per cent of the Hinkler residents are in the three most disadvantaged deciles.
Furthermore, the education level of the population aged 15 and over is substantially lower than Queensland as a whole with 40.8 per cent not completing year 12 (compared to 28.4 per cent of Queensland), despite student attendance rates being stable and quite comparable to Queensland averages.
The Queensland government recognised the need for a co-ordinated effort to create jobs in the Bundaberg area back in 2017. But despite the $10.7 million state government grant to Bundaberg council, there was only a temporary boost to employment in the corresponding quarter.
Furthermore, the fact the economic profile of Bundaberg, for example demonstrates an increase in unemployment since June 2019 - after the CDC's implementation - suggests that the card is not as effective as the government claims in "incentivising" people into work.
Clearly, the issue is more complex than exerting control over how people spend money.
We all know the CDC is not a seamless program - there are families who have lost their rental properties due to CDC issues with rent payment, being unable to buy groceries or participate in the cash community effectively.
This is not including the mental and emotional impact of being "marked" as apparently untrustworthy of taking care of yourself.
Hinkler MP Keith Pitt backed Prime Minister Scott Morrison's claims that the boosted JobSeeker unemployment benefit during this time of crisis can act as a disincentive to seeking low-paid work, according to Financial Review in July of this year.
I find it staggering that the focus here is on the "problem with" allowing people who have fallen on difficult times to live with their noses above the poverty line and not the fact that there aren't enough sustainable jobs available to provide people with the "step up" the government expects of its people.
The responsibility of unemployment always burdens the shoulders of those experiencing it.
It is our government and commercial sector that are in a position of power to create the jobs so desperately needed: we cannot blame people for needing a salary they can live off.
In Hinkler, the average salary is $32,000 a year, a fraction above the initial boosted JobSeeker payment - perhaps the problem isn't that JobSeeker was too high, it's that "decent work" opportunities in this area are insufficient.
One thing I know for sure: quarantining 80 per cent of a welfare recipient's payments isn't going to reduce socio-economic disadvantage. At best, it's a Band-Aid; at worst, it destroys individuals' sense of agency.
Rolled out across everyone in these regions, it is based on the presumption that those receiving payments are incapable of managing their own finances, underpinned by stereotypes that have been proven to be inaccurate.
Shockingly, Indigenous Minister Ken Wyatt and O'Connor MP Rick Wilson said the qualitative study from the University of Adelaide we are still waiting to be released will have "no bearing" on effectively passing the legislation. It appears the government has made up its mind regardless of the data.
We've been quarantined enough this year.
Zoë Wundenberg is a careers consultant and un/employment advocateat impressability.com.au