Centrelink is in the news again after an automated debt recovery system with an overly simplistic data-matching algorithm effectively made up debts for some welfare recipients. This follows the gaffe in September 2016 when members of the Federal Government argued that welfare recipients who turn down paying work shouldn’t be eligible for government assistance. In a disappointing but entirely expected move, the government declined to fix the ‘debt-recovery’ system, in a continuation of their campaign to undermine welfare through continual cuts to unemployment spending.
These cuts are usually defended by the cultural construction of the ‘bludger’: a largely mythological figure who prefers a life on welfare over working and who needs to be discouraged from their idleness by the formulation of harsh laws surrounding the eligibility of Centrelink recipients, already struggling, in financial and emotional distress, far below the poverty line.
By representing any individual’s unemployment as stemming from a lack of individual effort, that is bludging, we refuse to acknowledge even the possibility of structural disadvantage, and we entrench pre-existing power structures and deny their responsibility. It’s clear why the beneficiaries of these power structures desire their protection and expansion, but the shaming of the unemployed is prevalent even amongst middle and working class Australians: groups who stand to lose the most from the policies that shame supports. Welfare is an important tool for economic mobility, it prevents crime and increases worker bargaining power – social benefits the bludger archetype encourages us to overlook in support of more restrictive welfare policies. When considered side-by-side with other government agendas – undermining student loans for low-income students, union bashing, and a focus on hard-work and austerity for the lower classes, while protecting passive income for the rich – we start to recognise the ways that the idea of the bludger helps to perpetuate the policies of neoliberalism.
The IMF has said that neoliberal policies are increasing income inequality, which already costs Australians over $500 individually every year. It feels like such a simple moral judgement: people should be working to support their country, and those who don’t should try to be ashamed of it. But this expectation has a negative effect on almost everyone, excluding the profoundly rich. It must be fought against at every turn.
We need to challenge the idea of ‘bludgers versus battlers’ and to recognise ourselves as all victims of the same disease: the ideology of neoliberal capitalism, which is reducing the quality of jobs and wages in every capitalist country around the world. Blaming the unemployed for their own situation might hold some cathartic value for people, but it only serves to bolster neoliberalism and further an individualist approach to social policy that denies the possibility of economic change. There are many ways to contribute to society, and the best way to help an unemployed person do this is to pay them money at a rate that doesn’t see them sink further into poverty.
We need to learn to trust the unemployed, not shame them, and to offer support for their personal endeavours. The alternative is further entrenched neoliberalism – a future far too grim to bear.