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Why Bashing Welfare Recipients As 'Dole Bludgers' Ignores The Unfair Reality

There are up to 17 times as many job seekers as job vacancies in Australia. Even if every person on welfare could work, the positions simply don’t exist.

Which is why it was disheartening, again, to see the nation’s major news outlets on Wednesday screaming about “dole bludgers” not meeting their welfare obligations. Government figures say around 80 percent of the nearly 745,000 people on the Jobactive system -- meant to provide pathways into employment through training and encouraging welfare recipients to apply for jobs -- had their payments suspended in the last year, due to not fulfilling their obligations.

They’re missing job interviews, the government says -- and therefore should lose a week’s worth of the meagre payment, and definitely don't deserve the Newstart increase they're calling for.

As a journalist, if I place myself in my most craven click-driven frame of mind, I can almost understand the insatiable thirst to use the term, a tabloid TV favourite. It evokes images of the young parent with five kids under five, sucking down a can of rum and cola at 11am, not bothering to check in at Centrelink.

But that’s not what most Newstart recipients look like.

People are on welfare for a variety of reasons, including full-time study. Photo: Getty

They’re university students, pulling their hair out over whether to skip their exam or their interview. They’re young parents trying to juggle doctor appointments and school pickups.

They’re sick old people, too unwell to get out of the house. They're unemployed older workers who can't get a new gig after being made redundant from the job they've worked at for 30 years.

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They’re people literally under general anaesthetic in surgery, as a Centrelink drone stamps a red X on their file because they failed to turn up to an appointment.

The fastest-growing group of Newstart clients is older women. Photo: Getty

These aren't hypothetical examples. They're actual, legit reasons Newstart clients say they have had their payments suspended. The Australian Unemployed Workers Union said it is aware of members losing payments because they've been told to be at a Centrelink appointment at the same time they're scheduled to be at a job interview.

Or that they missed an appointment because they were at a loved one's funeral.

Or were in rehabilitation for drug or alcohol issues.

Or even that they went to the appointment they were told to, fulfilled all their obligations, and still had their payments suspended due to a computer error.

That's the system welfare recipients are faced with -- "one of the most punitive" in the world, the AUWU claims. Settlement Services International said the figures were more an indication of "a complex and inadequate system" that confuses people, rather than the tawdry "welfare cheats" angle.

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Labor's shadow assistant treasurer, Dr Andrew Leigh, railed in parliament on Wednesday about "job hunters having their support payments suspended" while members of the government "are able to break marble tables in this place with little consequence", referring to an infamous incident in the aftermath of the 2015 Liberal leadership spill.

"They aren't hippies in Nimbin smoking pot. They're older people in their 50s, in their 60s," said Jason Clare, Labor's Shadow Minister for Housing and Homelessness.

“Dole bludgers”. It’s an easy term to write off people who haven’t got a job. It evokes an image of taking it easy, kicking back at home in front of the TV while us pillars of society trudge around making sure the lights stay on.

But if you needed any more evidence this is not nearly the case, this week's Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) report shone a light on the soul-crushing existence many Newstart recipients endure. From choosing between food and rent, from skipping meals, shivering through nights with the heater off because they’ve used up their $40 a day allowance on public transport or petrol to get to job interviews which can be an hour or more away from their home.

Does that sound fun?

Older people are left jobless, but not able to access their pension or superannuation yet. Photo: Getty

The “dole bludgers trying to take advantage of the system” narrative might have more heft and legitimacy if the payment wasn't literally below the poverty line. It’s two hours of the minimum wage.

So why not just get a job, you may ask. Well, it’s not as if it's just a choice for many.

The fastest-growing group of Newstart recipients is women over 55. The AUWU said senior people who have been laid off -- old enough to be forced out of work, too young to access a pension or superannuation -- are a group of concern for poverty and employment advocates.

“Bludgers”? As if it’s a quick fix just to go out and get a job -- to strap on your job helmet and squeeze down into a job cannon and fire off into job land.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in June, there were 159,700 job advertisements in Australia. In the same month, 711,500 people were classed as unemployed. That's one job for every 4.4 unemployed people. Starting to see the issue?

The AUWU says, once you take into account the under-employed (people who are, for instance, working casually or part-time but want full-time or higher-paid work) then there are up to 17 job seekers for every job.

Seventeen.

That’s 17 times as many people wanting a job, as there are jobs. I dropped out of high school maths in year 10, but I’m sure 17 doesn’t go into one.

Not enough job vacancies, too many jobseekers. Photo: Getty

Even if every Newstart recipient was capable of working -- and many aren’t, due to sickness, family commitments, injury, study and more -- then 16 of those 17 would get rejection letters. Where are they meant to go? What can they do?

"The best form of welfare is a job," Prime Minister Scott Morrison says.

"If you have a go, you’ll get a go."

How does that work when only one in 17 actually can physically GET a go? How much more of a "go" do they have to “have” before getting one? How does this nebulous system of volunteering and, in turn, obtaining -- or vice versa -- the equally nebulous "go" operate, when there is not enough "go" to go around to all those who desire a go?

It's sad to admit, but Australia may no longer be the land of opportunity it once was, or that some people still wish it to be. Wages are stagnant. Poverty is rising, according to the latest Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) report. There are not enough jobs for too many jobseekers. Our welfare recipients are among the poorest in the world.

It's wrong to say people are "bludgers" because they miss an appointment. It ignores the reality of this situation, that the system makes it difficult for disadvantaged and at-risk people to simply keep up with their obligations -- and glosses over the bare fact that, even if they get the full amount they're entitled to, Australia's welfare recipients are not even close to living a life of luxury.

Featured Image: Getty