Thursday, May 7, 2009

Welfare And The State

I’ve never understood the loathing of welfare. The safety net thing — that’s the single biggest advantage we have over places like the US. Try talking to Jennicki for a while as to what it means to know that losing your job means losing your healthcare – and knowing there’s not even a useful equivalent of ‘the dole’ to keep you out of the gutters.

I have no problem with welfare in this country. I’ve seen too many successful and valued writers, artists and musicians get their start on unemployment. I know too many high-tax-paying businessfolk who got their start because they could afford to take a risk, knowing that if they failed it didn’t spell the end for them. A semi-functioning welfare structure acts as more than a safety net: for the young, the creative and the entrepeneurial, it provides a springboard. I'll let you in on a clue, here: most of the folk I knew through university have sucked at the government tit in one form or another. And I will bet you my last penny that every one of them has since then gone on to pay far, far more in taxes than ever they received in welfare.

You know some of those people too, if you're on this site regularly. And if that's the case, you're stuck with acknowledging this painful fact: for a (possibly) small but important class of people, the welfare system actually produces a massive profit for the government -- because without the ability to move between jobs, and to make career choices, and to further their education without the risk of drowning their futures in US-style debt, those innovative, independent-minded, highly intelligent people would probably have been stuck at the bottom of the fiscal food chain, deposited there by the lack of a parentally-provided fortune.

All that Horatio Alger myth-building stuff? It's bullshit. For ever genuine clawed-their-way-up-from-the-bottom success story, there are at least ten thousand who won the birth lottery and scored via simple nepotism and inheritance. Without a decent welfare structure, if you're born at the bottom of the heap, that's where you stay. Don't take my word for it: go and look at social mobility in countries without decent welfare. It isn't hard to do... but I suppose it's harder than sitting back and bitching about your taxes going to those lazy dole-bludging cheats, eh?

I find the resentment of tax by the wealthy predictable, boring, and more than a little painful. Welfare is enough to keep people from starving, and not much else. You should think of it as a form of insurance, because if it isn’t paid – well, history shows that starving people with nothing to lose tend to take matters into their own hands with some violence. And frankly, I'd be one of 'em in a flash. If the system wasn't there to support my family if we suffered a dose of bad luck -- and bad luck can be all it takes, folks -- you can bet I'd be only too ready to act against that system to support my children. Pay your insurance, folks: you don't want too many angry fathers working together with your comfortable, asset-rich asses in their gunsights.

There's more: idiotic right-wing religions take root amongst the poor and oppressed. Yes, the rich Saudis are Wahabi — in theory — but where do you find the suicide bombers and the fanatical jihadis? For every Osama bin Laden, there are ten thousand Mohammed ibn Mohammeds, sons of the souk and the wadi. You want to see radical Islam (or hardcore USAnian christo-fundo-bullshit) settle firmly in Australia? Cut welfare: let the religious organizations move in to support the disenfranchised. In a generation, you'll be fucked like you could never imagine.

Are there people claiming welfare dishonestly? I expect so, yes. What do we lose to them anyway? The little money we pay them is spent, not accrued. They are not becoming wealthy on your taxes. In fact, they’re shifting that money into the pockets of people even richer than you — and if you really want to get pissed off about the system, maybe that’s where you should be looking. After all, we're not a poor country. We can afford to ignore a few people siphoning pennies out of the chump change jar - especially when we're willing to throw elephant bucks at the banks every time they cry poor.

There's still more, though. This is Australia. Our national identity is all about the fair go, the helping hand, about pulling our mates up out of the mud when they fall. An Australia without a decent, comprehensive welfare structure isn't an Australia at all: it's a wholly-owned subsidiary of Fat Corporate Bastardry, the world-wide nation-state knocking on every door on the fucking planet, and I don't want any part of it.

Paying taxes isn't my favourite thing. I disagree with many of the areas where the government chooses to spend my money. But you won't hear me complaining about welfare: it's done too much for me, for my family, for my friends, my community, and my country.


  1. As it happens - I agree with much of what you say. I don't think that anyone believes that there shouldn't be a safety net in Aus. Nonetheless, I believe that the huge increase in middle class welfare engendered by the previous government does society no favours in the long term. Just my two bobs worth.

    And I have noticed that everyone complains about tax! Not just the wealthy.

  2. Welfare is a necessary part of the modern state in my mind. However I also disagree with certain models *cough* the french*cough* where you are almost rewarded for being unemployed.

    I used to know this lovely french woman who basically was paid 80% of her previous wage for nearly a year whilst looking for her ideal job (with Chanel as it happens).

    Welfare recipients are often derided as they are easy targets. And the tabloid press love to use the odd cases of proven welfare fraud as an attack on both the system and the people receving benefit.

    When the razor gangs come around they never really deal with waste though they tend to make things harder for people who actually do need the money. Government waste is never properly dealt with and you can see this when tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars get spent on consultnants whilst kindy funding is cut. or projects like Iron Cove go ahead even when there is a cheaper greener option.

    In the UK the biggest attack is against 'illegal immigrants' getting housing or benefits of a much better level than the indigs get.

    Oh and Kev 747 won't guarantee a $30 a week increase in the pension..still

  3. I agree. That whole middle class welfare thing of Howard's was not a safety net, it was prime pork barrelling. My thinking is that we need to keep people from starving, from that desparation you see in the U.S. That was a real eye opener for me. The fact is that there are people who can't really manage their lives as per the Mc Life play book, and they do really need our help. We're not all going to voluntarily make donations each week so there's not a lot of other real options.
    Lerm - everyone complains about taxes, including myself. For my taxes I want the unemployed and pensioners to be able to eat more than a tin of Chum, for kiddies to get taught more than what's on E News, a viable hospital system and some cool shit which goes bang.

  4. Hear, Hear.

    Though for me the more interesting thought is not the well reasoned and rational arguements you make, but what casued you to choose this particular moment to make them?

  5. A well written piece Flinthart and I agree with your points but I find little sympathy in my heart at the moment for those who live off the public tit permanently.
    As for helping people up if they're in the gutter leave them there until they've proven they want help by making it to the sidewalk.

  6. I for one am glad of the welfare state. I went from a 100k plus job to medical expenses of 100k plus a year. Chewed up all my savings in the first year and the Government picked up the tab for the difference and fully supported me for the next two years.

    Now that I am on the mend they will pay to get me back into employment.

    I doubt I would have made it without that support.

  7. hmmmm as a person who is not TRADE qualified nor Uni qualed either, which BTW in my opinion makes not fucking difference and is unemployed I shall comment.

    Firstly, its a great system, yep, like all, its prone to bouts of abuse and that happens everywhere in every system, removing a system does not stop it, I note however you do not advocate that and neither do I.

    What typically pisses me off is the level of meddling the welfare department dishes out, matched only by the amount of detail the required from you before you can get benefits. ts one of TH MOST FUCKING Exascerbating exercise ever to be undertaken by an individual. THEN, they almost require a pound of blood from you each week now and to say that most of the related schemes with which you must frolic are plain fucking stupid is understating it dramatically.

    I'm not there YET!, but give it two months and my arse will be down at that office, whether I like it or not.

    That department needs an overhaul, more about WHAT THEY OFFER in terms of assistance, the people at the coal face get to deal with poor bastards who have nerves frazzeled every day and I am not sure weter I could do that sort of job. In fact, I know that if I did, somebody would possibly get hurt.

    Cannot agree with you enough, same on the Tax front.

    Bangar, just be aware, that the tipping upside down of a person world, might make getting to that sidewalk a very difficult exercise, it brings all sorts of very emotive things to the surface, one of which s PRIDE!.

  8. Couldn't agree more. I dislike people who whinge and moan about paying tax. I don't actually think it's that big of a cut from your salary for the benefits that society gets.

    I have never been on welfare benefits, however, I would not be as stupid as to claim I'd never benefited from the state. Ever bought prescription medication? It's subsidised. Drive a car? Your government pays for the roads you drive on.

    I would rather pay more tax and have less crime and poverty. Take away welfare and people get desperate (as you've noted Flint).

    And people who complain about "dole bludgers" are ignorant. Sure, there will always be a small percentage of people who take advantage of a situation, but that's life! The benefits far, far outweigh the carrying factor.

    And, again as you say, the Horatio Alger stuff is bullshit. Those opinions are based on a level playing field. Which anyone with half a brain knows is unrealistic.

  9. Havock, I understand what you mean. I was retrenched as a young bloke in last financial F up, and the dole money was appreciated (as well as the family support).
    Where my issue is with those that have made their home there and have never made an effort to move from there.

  10. I was on the dole about four or five times as a baby writer. Rorted it something fierce I did.

    But I pay more in tax now in one year than I rorted in ten, back then.

    I actually think a properly functioning welfare system is much better than arts grants.

  11. Interesting how the nation who are most in love with the concept of rags-to-riches stories, the US, is the one in which it's probably the hardest to do.
    Would rather pay more tax to guarantee better health, welfare, education and research funding than less and watch all of the above sink to user-pays levels.

  12. Havock: I worked for several years in the old Dept of Social Security. If you think it's bad trying to get a payment on your side of the counter... trust me: trying to actually AUTHORISE such a payment is fucking unbelievable.

    When I worked for DSS, a counter-cheque (a handover cheque paid on the spot to people in particular circumstances of difficulty) required FIVE separate signatures -- the interviewing officer (me), my immediate supervisor, the section head, the officer who actually issued the cheques, and a reviewing officer. Even the fucking banks don't require that kind of redundancy.

    The system was pretty much broken back then, over ten years ago. It's no better under the new boys.

    It's not supposed to be easy to score welfare support. But sometimes the system is downright fucked up.

    Barnes: I wrote about it because I started responding to a post on somebody else's blog... and then realized I was winding up to a full-on rant, so I thought I'd just transport it in full.

    I agree, by the way, that Johnny Howard's 'middle class welfare' is a crock. But I wanted to articulate some of the more unusual reasons why I'm in support of a decent welfare system. And for the record, Birmo's put it better than I did: a good welfare structure is a whole lot better at promoting the arts than the desperately fucked-up system of grants that's supposed to do the job.

  13. Yep. Centrelink should do the sums and advertise the big names. Bet you'd find a whole pile of Hollywood a-listers were once on their books. Over the past forty years it's the dole that has spawned more culture in this country than the Australia council will ever do while its arse points to the ground.

    Personally, I'd have ended up barefoot, pregnant and buried in the burbs being bashed by a wife beater if it weren't for the possibility of escape that welfare gave me. Not to mention the bright shining light of a free education that actually did get me out of there. Thank you Gough, thank you fellow Australians - I'm eternally in your debt, and delighted to be in a position to pay tax now. There are at least three of my best friends whose survival I'm delighted to be paying for.

  14. Thank you for a terrific post Flinthart, there are many out there who are on welfare not because they want to be or even like the idea of needing it, but still their hand to mouth existence is made with slightly more dignity due to welfare. Personally, I would love to see all the knockers put in the same position and see just how high and mighty they feel after a few months, perhaps their eyes would be finally opened to the other side of life.

  15. Great post FH.

    I could go on and on about the state of welfare and unemployment in the US. I'm one of the fortunate ones to have gotten a job, and a good one at that, and I will always be grateful.

    I am still without healthcare. I am not eligible for it until July. If something catastrophic should occur between now and then, I will be ruined.

    I know people who are in incredibly dire straits right now--about to lose their homes, have already lost their healthcare and are unable to provide food or medical care to their children.

    It's terrifying. There is very little help out there.

  16. You know, Jen, that is one of the main differences between US and Australian culture. The lack of support in America. The almost evangelical hatred of welfare not just from the ruling elite (who at least have self interest at heart 'hell no I'm not payng more tax to support you!') but also the poor, who've been duped into thinking it's more dignified to starve in silence than take a handout. Both attidudes do exist here, and there are always plenty of right wing shitheads trying to make it the default setting in our culture too. But they fail every time. Because it's just horrific.

  17. Something's gotta give here. It is so bad right now. So bad. The lines at the unemployment office spiral around and around the block. The state can't afford to hire more help, so people wait in line for up to 12 hours trying to get their unemployment money--which, from what I've been told by quite a few people--they are months behind on. I know a guy who's unemployed & hasn't received any kind of money from the state for nearly 3 months. He's lucky he found work under the table mowing lawns. Not enough cash to feed a family or pay rent (he had to move in with his sister) but it's something.

    One of my best friends recently lost her job as a schoolteacher. Her husband has been laid off from his job. They're getting by on the little money she makes substitute teaching, but that's going to end soon with the summer holidays coming up. Schools are laying off and not hiring teachers right now.

    My friend is paying her mortgage with a credit card currently. There is not enough cash to buy food for her kids, so they had to apply for food stamps. Her kids have very limited health care coverage through the state, but my friend and her husband have no health care.

    If something doesn't give soon, they'll lose their house. They can't sell it because the housing market is terrible. I have another friend whose house (a very nice, clean house that they've put a lot of work into) has been on the market for 3 years. They have to move because her husband got a job in anther city. Right now he commutes, and the rising gas costs are really hurting them financially. They've had to drop the price of the house so much that if they do sell, their current offering price is nearly $20,000 less than what they paid for it.

    I have a cousin who works for a bank. He has a wife and three kids. He's losing his job soon. There's nothing here for him, so he's applying out of state for jobs even though they don't want to move--all their family and friends are here. But they have a house, which probably won't sell, so my cousin's wife will stay here in Kalamazoo with the kids and my cousin will have to move out of state, rent a cheap studio apartment, and send money back home. They won't be able to afford for him to come home and see the kids very often.

    And this is the best case scenario for them at the moment.

  18. This bothers me. I keep coming back to it. You should know what it's like out there for the unemployed. I will write about it. I always planned on writing about it but I was so shell-shocked, I'm still trying to recover.

    It is an awful experience, being unemployed. I wouldn't wish it on anyone, especially now. But the way people treat the unemployed, and take advantage of them, was absolutely shocking and disgusting to me.

    I'll write about it more in my blog. But probably not today. It's very upsetting.

  19. FH - when I last worked for DSS / Centrelink they'd moved away from counter cheques to debit cards which people would use in ATM's. The amount loaded up on the debit card would be taken from their next payment.
    Got no idea how they do it these days but at Darlinghurst they were cutting them out. The most fucked up office in the nation and they take away the best means of moving the scariest patrons on.