How Fair Will Civil Society Be?
11 June 2014 at 1:22 pm
Surely a Government that speaks of “strengthening civil society” will want to avert some of the consequences of its singular focus on achieving budget surpluses, questions Catherine Yeomans, the CEO of Christian welfare Not for Profit Mission Australia.
Civil Society. Sounds good doesn’t it? Instinctively it sounds like the sort of society to which we all might aspire. It sounds respectful, safe, perhaps even neighbourly.
So surely it’s a good sign when the Federal Government says it wants to “strengthen civil society” with “greater support for the community sector”, as was highlighted by the Social Services Minister in his post-budget press release.
But after four weeks of analysis on just what the budget will mean for people in need many of us in that community sector are left asking just how fair will that “civil society” be?
Following revelations that government itself sees a need to put aside almost $230 million to cover increasing demand in emergency payments for those facing hardship, it’s quite clear we’re going to see more Australians in crisis.
For those of us who work with the young people who will be affected by the government’s ‘earn or learn’ policy agenda, this hardly comes as a surprise.
Consider this: How does a 20 year old we are working with to help find a job – someone who is getting by on Youth Allowance, eating 2 minute noodles for dinner, who can barely afford to pay rent and is saving every cent possible to buy a new shirt in case she gets a job interview – how can we expect her to make any more of a “contribution”? Like many of the young people we speak to in these situations, she is applying for dozens of jobs every week and in each case competing against hundreds of other applicants with very little hope.
Well, despite the fact her cupboards are already bare; the government has decided young people like this should be able to contribute their entire safety net by taking them off support payments for six months at a time until they find a job in a climate of more than 12% youth unemployment.
What this approach fails to acknowledge is that not every young person has a family to rely on for support. We may wish for strong and supportive family relationships but sadly not every young person has that. Or sometimes the family relationship may be strong but due to unemployment or very low incomes, families simply cannot afford to support an adult child who is receiving no income at all.
So how do these measures do anything to boost participation, to make this group of young people “earn or learn”? How do they contribute to “civil society”?
The answer is: they don’t.
Instead, the budget measures targeting Australians who are already struggling to make ends meet will make it even harder for people to improve their circumstances. In the drive to save some dollars by cutting funding to support programs as well as restricting the amount of income support available to the most vulnerable in our society, we will actually hinder many people from getting a job or worse still push the young unemployed to the fringes of society as a new underclass – which of course will result in a significant increase in demand for emergency assistance to address personal crisis.
Apart from the very obvious social implications of the government’s new policy setting, there is also a serious question about the economic rationale behind this approach.
There is plenty of evidence that investment in early intervention and support programs for people struggling with unemployment or homelessness will save money – and change lives – in the long run. When you invest early and up-front in areas such as early learning, affordable housing, mental health supports and programs that help disadvantaged young people transition from education into work, you deliver significant savings for the future by reducing the cost of long-term unemployment, homelessness and preventable health issues.
In short, good social policy can also be good economic policy.
But a federal budget that cuts funding from successful intervention programs while also reducing support for people when they are at their most vulnerable is, quite frankly, neither. And with the emergency relief fund essentially confirming these policy changes are going to lead to a greater need for crisis support, this budget is simply counterintuitive.
We still have six months until many of these measures come into effect. My hope is that the government will recognise the impact of its budget, in taking away the supports that help people into work, before it’s too late.
There’s still time to turn things around – to take the funds put aside for increased demand on emergency relief and invest them in financial and program supports that will allow young people to not only get by, but indeed to set a new course for a brighter future.
Surely a government that speaks of “strengthening civil society” will want to avert some of the consequences of its singular focus on achieving budget surpluses. If they don’t, it will be left to charities like ours with scarce resources to pick up the pieces.
About the author: Catherine Yeomans was appointed CEO of Mission Australia in March 2014. Prior to this, Yeomans served as Mission Australia's Chief Operating Officer, and during that time held responsibility for areas including advocacy, media, marketing, fundraising, HR, legal, IT, procurement and property. With a law degree by academic background, she has held senior management roles in a broad spectrum of fields across the corporate sector. She is a Director of Mission Australia Early Learning, Mission Australia Housing, Mission Australia Housing (Victoria) and Many Rivers Microfinance Limited.