The Work That You Can't Sell

 

The stuff that makes good societies, communities and families tick can't always be officially valued. The problem is, welfare policies don't recognise this. Eva Cox on why income support needs an urgent rethink.
 

There are many tasks and responsibilities that make up a good society that are neither officially counted or valued. The market prices those only goods and services that are exchanged and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) includes only those transactions. These goods and services constitute a relatively small part of the complex relationships of interdependence that make quality families, communities and, societies.

However, too many current policies assumes that recognising paid work by government is all that is required. The result is that income support and welfare payment policies increasingly penalise those who don't or can't sell their labour or product.

So where are we now? Interfamily production and consumption doesn't count. Caring for your own children is out but paid care for other children was in. Giving away your home-made jam doesn't count but selling it does. Creating something beautiful, funny or sacred is of no value unless it is sold. Telling stories for nothing is not valued — make sure it is paid for!

Advocates of ALP values bang on and on about working families. Other forms of contribution are invisible or unwelcome. Current income support policies fail to recognise that many complex social contributions come from outside the workforce. The policies are becoming increasingly authoritarian and paternalistic, as shown by cuts to sole parent incomes, the imposition of compulsory income management and the low level of Newstart. Unfortunately, these policies are bipartisan — voting for the Coalition will change nothing.

There needs to be a serious rethink about why we pay income support payments so they offer more than a pressure point to get a job. Sole parents and the unemployed are easy scapegoats, something which the Government is exploiting. Comments on a recent New Matilda article by Koraly Dimitriadis show the dimensions of the debate. She is a writer and a single mother whose Australia Council grant tangled her into definitions of what is income and when governments should provide it.

The comments reflected both the official policies and the deep prejudices they are exploiting and exacerbating. Many failed to recognise the time demands of both parenting and producing creative outputs and suggested she should get a proper job. Others understood that the combination left little time to put in a extra 15 hours a week stacking supermarket shelving, assuming this job was available in school hours.

Dimitriadis' story provides a starting point for discussing what tasks and skills should be eligible for public income support. The 1980s critique of GDP in Marilyn Waring's book, Counting for Nothing, documented the uncounted untraded work done mainly by women in most pre-industrial societies and, later, in households. When men left home to work for wages, women provided the social services and glue that make families and communities good places to be.

The current policy emphasis on paid work is extraordinarily narrow in its failure to recognise the value of other necessary contributions. There are also not enough adequately paid jobs for everyone to share, as now there are about five actual job seekers for every advertised vacancy, and even official full employment has a 5 per cent unemployment rate. Add those who can't find a job and the many others who cannot even look for paid work and it is obvious we need to create income support for unpaid contributions to social well being. Good parenting, for instance, deserves a decent income base.

The accounts below were gathered during research undertaken by Kristie Rue on income support. They show what happens when sole parents experience inadequate support. For many families the only area where cost cutting measures are available is food and children's activities. The impact of cutting these areas reaches far into the future. Parents are being encouraged to keep their children active, have them involved in team sports to encourage socialisation and activity, to fight the ongoing obesity epidemic and in turn reduce to cost on the health care system. It takes time and transport to find cheap food and deal with income cuts.

A 33-year-old mother of one has just been affected by the changes to income support. She has been studying for the past two years, retraining in order to enter the workforce. She also has the commitment of being a sole parent with no local family support. So many positions require flexibility in work hours, evenings and weekends, but this mother needs to think of her child and his needs and has to declare the inability to do overtime without notice. How many organisations are going to employ her when there are similarly qualified applicants who have no restrictions on their time?

For parents who are still studying, access to JET childcare fee reduction will increase the out of pocket expenses for childcare. In addition, a parent will only receive the pensioner education supplement until she has completed her current degree. She will lose her education supplement when she has completed the degree, but will not be qualified to teach as she needs to complete a Dip Ed.

Louise is currently half way through her qualification, and is already financially struggling to support herself and her son. The costs of running a car to and from university and taking her son to school, as well as after school care means there is little left over for the essentials. Taking public transport is not an option due to the extra travelling time and the restricted hours of care. Louise is also concerned with her ability to perform at her best. Studying full time, being a full time parent, and now working part time, means there are so many demands on her time that her ability to focus on her studies and commit to learning and performing at her best, will be in question.

Karen has not always been a single parent. Five years ago she had a mortgage, a partner and, on the surface, stability. Under the surface it was a life filled with domestic violence, and it was this life she chose to leave. Because of her parental commitments she was not able to secure employment which covered her mortgage repayments and she lost her home. For many women who are now in similar positions if their youngest child is over eight, the decision to leave has just been made more difficult.

There are now around 100,000 sole parents in messes such as these. Official policy is that parents have to accept or keep a job if they net $50 extra per fortnight. But working for $25 per week does not allow for time and stress costs. People need to have time and resources to support those in need, including nurturing time for the young and developing good relationships.

Australia is rapidly moving away from the basic right to expect support from the welfare state, if you have inadequate income. The changes seem more ideological than financial as there is no suggestion the government will cut excessive administrative costs of nearly $150 per person per week for the NT Income Management program.

There needs to be an immediate upgrading of income support for sole parents on Newstart which recognises that they already have a time consuming job. They should all be returned to parenting payments which have a longer taper and higher base than Newstart. On the wider issue, we need to develop an income support systems that recognises diverse ways of contributing and being, rather than assuming social inclusion is based only on paid work.

The author thanks Kristie Rue for her input into this article.