Who Cares?: Life on welfare in Australia
Melbourne University Press, $33 pb, 170 pp
According to its author, Who Cares? offers ‘an up-close, humane and grounded ethnographic account of life on welfare’. Eve Vincent foregrounds the perspectives of people who are subjected to ‘an endlessly reforming welfare system’. Vincent spent substantial time in the field, building relationships with her subjects, and while the history of welfare in Australia is neatly sketched and the social and political theories underpinning the study are worthy of interest, the voices of her subjects – those who live in poverty while being subjected to strict (and sometimes nonsensical) conditions – are the book’s most vital and captivating features.
The publication of Who Cares? coincides with testimonies given to the Royal Commission into the Robodebt Scheme, which have further demonstrated that the harms inflicted by the unlawful debt recovery scheme were a product of malicious pigheadedness on the part of the federal ministers and high-ranking public servants who oversaw it. The revelations are entirely consistent with Vincent’s analysis of how welfare is administered in Australia. Vincent – Chair of Anthropology in the Macquarie School of Social Sciences - notes that social security became ‘increasingly conditional and punitive’ in the 1990s, and that the trend has persisted in this century. To be unemployed is to ‘subsist in crushing poverty, especially in major Australian cities where housing costs are steep’, but pleas to increase rates and expand access to essential resources are continually rejected.
Who Cares? focuses on people who are ‘affected by two significant recent welfare measures: the cashless debit card and a pre-employment program called ParentsNext’. In both instances, welfare assistance ‘comes with complex conditions attached, and there are financial sanctions associated with non-adherence, or alleged non-adherence’. The cashless debit card trials were introduced in Ceduna in March 2016, and were abolished by the Labor government last year. The card ‘quarantined 80 per cent of all income support payments’ and initially targeted First Nations people disproportionately. The aim was to prevent the purchase of alcohol and drugs, to limit spending on gambling and pornography, and to thereby reduce violence and other destructive behaviours. However, its impact could not be measured because necessary data was not captured before the trial. The cashless debit card was a shoddy social experiment run by people who failed to do the basics.