Jane Caro: Sorry, ScoMo, But Cashless Welfare Cards Are A Slap In The Face

When I first heard about the Federal government's plans to roll out the cashless welfare card, my blood ran cold.

Now with Senator Jacqui Lambie unlikely to block the measure, the card (which controls 80 percent of the spending of those receiving benefits) is one step closer to being nationally implemented.

Naturally my first thoughts were of the dignified but desperate older women I have been meeting all over Australia in the last few months -- women who spent a lifetime putting others' needs ahead of their own -- and the terrible insult this move represents from our self-proclaimed 'compassionate conservative' government.

This generation of women, my generation, changed the world by being the first whole cohort of women in history who have mostly worked for their own money for most of their lives and yet they are facing very different fates. Some women of my generation -- like me -- are doing very nicely thank you, and are living much richer -- in every sense of the word, not just financial -- lives than any generation of women who came before them.

However, far too many are facing an old age characterised by poverty and desperation. In fact, the fastest growing group among the homeless is women over 55.

READ MORE: Housing Crisis: Young People Pushing Older Women Into Homelessness

It is the women who have put other people’s needs ahead of their own who now face financial disaster. (Image: Getty)

So why the two different fates? If you believe in the ‘prosperity gospel’ or libertarianism, as many of the rich and powerful appear to do, you might think the women who are doing well deserve their good fortune. That they made better ’life choices’ and prepared better for their retirement. But as I discovered, the opposite is true.

It is the good girls of my generation, the girls who did as they were told and put other people’s needs ahead of their own, who have ended up facing financial disaster.

It’s pretty simple to work out why if you bother to think about it. These are the women who left work to care for their children and who returned to the workforce part-time so they could continue to put their families first. If anyone in the family had a disability, guess who left work to care for them? And when parents grew frail and needed care, it was also daughters who were expected to step up. And what was happening to their superannuation while they took time out to care for others? Not a lot. That is why women retire with an average of half the super of men and fully one-third of us leave the workforce with no super at all.

Far too many women are facing an old age characterised by poverty and desperation. (Image: Getty)

These women did what they were told. They weren’t the noisy, bolshie feminists like me, they were the well-behaved daughters, wives and mothers who put love ahead of money.

And now we are punishing them for it. This punishment may be about to get even worse.

There is a growing unease that there are plans to roll out the cashless welfare card to everyone receiving government benefits, including Newstart and the aged pension. Contrary to the old-fashioned (and always inaccurate) stereotype of the hippie dole bludger, the largest single group forced to exist on Newstart are people aged over 45, many of them women, and they tend to stay on it much longer than younger recipients.

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The cashless welfare card quarantines 80 percent of the money received and controls what it can be spent on. It has been trialled in a handful of remote Indigenous communities since 2014, and since rolled out to some non-Indigenous welfare recipients as well. The idea was to prevent unemployment benefits being spent on gambling, drinking or other illicit substances. The results of the trials have been mixed.

There is a growing unease that there are plans to roll out the cashless welfare card to everyone receiving government benefits. (Image: Getty)

Some in community seem to think it has helped mitigate entrenched problems, but surely there is a better way to help those struggling with what experts call co-morbidities than by taking away their agency. After all, the card is not just given to those who gamble, drink to excess or who have other addictions. It has been imposed on everyone, even those perfectly capable of managing their own finances. The indignity and paternalism of that is, to my mind, outrageous.

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

I don’t care who you are, being poor does not mean that you are necessarily feckless, wasteful or incapable. It is not a vice that should be punished any more than accumulating wealth is a virtue that should be further rewarded. Tragically, being poor is much more likely if you are Indigenous, a person of colour, born into a poor family and -- increasingly -- if you are a woman who commits the cardinal sin of getting old.

Being better off is conversely much more likely if you are white, born into privilege and a man. None of these circumstances -- on either side -- are deserved or earned.

In other words, this cashless welfare card, as it stands now, overwhelmingly blames and stigmatises people for the circumstances of their birth.

When I spoke to women who were currently on Newstart, they confided their situations in whispers, often saying they had not told anyone of their financial desperation. They had tears in their eyes. They were ashamed of their poverty, having absorbed the nonsense that it was somehow their own fault. Many of these women had worked all their lives in both paid and unpaid work, often employed in low-paid caring professions like nursing, childcare, aged care and the community sector.

READ MORE: Boosting 'Embarrassment' Welfare Payments Would Help Economy

Ricci, the older woman who electrified Australia with her question to the Q&A panel a couple of weeks ago, was typical of the women I spoke to. She’d worked in the community sector for decades, including in managerial positions, was retrenched when she reached a certain age and -- despite desperately wanting to work -- found herself unemployable because of her age. She asked how someone like her could ‘have a go to get a go’, quoting the PM’s recent words, and received little in the way of a useful answer.

Like many current recipients of the cashless welfare card in Indigenous communities and elsewhere, women like Ricci are not poor because they gambled, drank or drugged their money away. They are not poor because they are stupid or wasteful. Indeed, they perform daily economic miracles to continue to survive. They are not poor because they are lazy -- quite the opposite.

READ MORE: 'Stressful, Heartbreaking' Newstart Payment Needs Raise, Welfare Advocates Plead

Like everyone, their dignity and pride remain important to them and is often all they have left. No one should be subjected to the cashless welfare card, in my view, just because they are poor, or Indigenous or old. And it is beneath contempt that we should reward the women who did what they were told and are poor because they put others' needs ahead of their own while we blithely exploited their self-sacrifice.

I shudder to think what will happen if we try it.

A version of this article first appeared on 22 August 2019.