Social policy for the ‘good society’

Social policy for the ‘good society’

[comments presented at the Australian Social Policy Conference, Sydney 30 September 2015]

The ‘golden triangle’ of a good welfare state consists of:

  1. A labour market that minimises inequality and maximises mobility;
  2.  A social security system that minimises poverty and maximises economic participation;
  3.  Community services that strengthen solidarity and target disadvantage.

To achieve the ‘good society’ we still need to strengthen each of these three foundations and integrate them in response to individual and community needs.

It helps to give an example: I’ve been researching ‘activation’ or employment participation policies for people of working age on income support.

Over the last 25 years, Governments have re-written the welfare contract:

In return for income support, people are now expected to take steps to secure paid work where they can, and Government in turn is expected to invest in supports that improve their capacity to do so.

This brings to the fore three factors that have always shaped well-being for people in a vulnerable position in labour market: adequate income support, access to jobs (keeping in mind that labour market participation was always a benefit requirement), and the services required by people disadvantaged in the labour market (which in the past were rarely offered).

Every country does activation differently: it’s a site for the inevitable political contests over work and welfare. Every country has its policy strengths and weak links.

In Australia, wage inequality is too high but labour mobility is relatively good. We have an unusual combination of high minimum wages, greater reliance on part time employment (so that employers can use low skilled labour more productively) and in-work benefits (people receive income support and family payments when in low paid part-time jobs). This set-up is far from perfect, but it works better than labour markets that underpay people or exclude them completely. For example, a full time worker in the United States receiving the minimum wage has to work five days to earn as much as a minimum wage earner in Australia receives in three.

The weak links in our labour market for low skilled workers are high levels of casual work, decline of union presence in workplaces, and lack of protection for the large number of temporary workers from overseas (backpackers and students), which undercuts minimum wages.

The weakest link in the social security system is the low level of Newstart Allowance for those out of paid work: at $37 a day, which is towards the bottom of unemployment benefits in OECD countries.

In employment services it’s the lack of investment in the 70% of recipients have been on Newstart for more than 12 months. The main public investment here is Work for the Dole (a traditional ‘workfare’ program), which is more about pushing people away from income support than drawing them towards secure employment.

The solution to these problems is not just a matter of more benefits and more investment – the system has to be restructured so that the benefit system, labour market, and employment services are mutually reinforcing.

At least three changes are needed:

  1. We assume unemployed people should come to the labour market, not the other way round.There is much talk of incentives for unemployed people when its employers who need to be incentivized. A tighter labour market, better regulation of pay for low skilled work, wage subsidies for economically excluded workers would do much more to reduce unemployment than adjustments to benefits to improve work incentives. Employment service providers should have better resources and incentives to work more intensively with employers.
  2. We divide social security for people of working age into pensions for those supposedly ‘unable to work’ and the much lower Newstart Allowance for those ‘able to work’. Newstart is over $260 a week less than the pension for a single adult. By implication, those able to work are less ‘deserving’ of income support, even where their financial needs are the same.‘Unable to work’ a very antiquated notion. We should move away from these old distinctions and base rates of payment on need rather than distance from employment.

    This idea owes much to the principles of ‘basic income’ (and Australia comes closer to that ideal that most countries), but I prefer Tony Atkinson’s version in which payments are still linked to workforce participation. If income support is not closely connected with the labour market, then economic exclusion may be entrenched.

    If we move away from outdated notion that some people are ‘unable to work’ participation requirements can be better adjusted to individual circumstances, especially caring roles. This does not imply that the social security system should regulate family care. Rather, caring roles should be taken into account when deciding economic participation requirements.

  3. Governments guarantee people basic income support but not the employment assistance they need.In the name of cost-efficiency and flexibility, employment services in Australia are purchased from non-government providers based on employment outcomes. This sounds like a good idea – given the poor historical performance of public employment services in assisting people with labour market disadvantage. But over time employment services have been reduced to the lowest common denominator: the minimum of job search assistance required to get those who are ‘easiest to place’ over the line, while the rest languish for years on unemployment benefits.

    The present employment services system is all about process rather than content. We’ve lost sight of what it is that employment services should provide: the regular work experience, training and other services that many people need to improve their job prospects. No one is taking clear responsibility to provide them.

    We need to ensure the Government does not repeat that mistake as it experiments with the ‘investment approach’ to social disadvantage which is now under consideration.

These three issues are all connected: we won’t have adequate income support without labour market participation, and participation won’t be effective without a substantial investment in employment supports, and a change in the way the labour market treats low-skilled workers.

Just desserts? Social security and ‘deservingness’

Who ‘deserves’ income  support and why? An important new study on the social legitimacy of benefits sheds light on why some groups and some benefits are more favoured than others. This helps explain why the Newstart Allowance is $160pw less than the pension, why there are periodic ‘moral panics’ over the so-called ‘rorting’ of the DSP, and why people are concerned when millionaires receive Age Pensions. It also helps inform the design of social security payments.

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Does Work for the Dole work?

Work for the Dole was the flagship employment program of the Abbott Government (Abbott reprised his role as the program’s founder as a Minister in the Howard Government). From July 2015, working for benefits for at least 15 hours a week became the ‘default activity’ for 6 months of every year for unemployed people. One fifth of employment services spending is devoted to the program – almost $300 million a year. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in remote communities face continuous Work for the Dole for 25 hours a week.

The Turnbull Government seems less enthusiastic: it has cut the program back: instead of Work for the Dole after 6 month’s unemployment, from April 2017 unemployed young people will be enrolled in the ‘Youth Jobs Path’ program which combines work-readiness training with private sector internships.

Work for the Dole has always been controversial, but does it work? This blog looks at recent evidence of the impact of ‘work for benefits’ schemes on transitions to paid employment in the UK and a 2014 evaluation of Work for the Dole in Australia. Continue reading

Deduct the losses, capitalise the gains: how negative gearing works

Negative gearing arouses passions on both sides: about a third think people are making legitimate deductions, a third think it’s a rort, and a third don’t know. This blog explains how negative gearing works, to help resolve these issues. A more complete analysis of negative gearing can be found in a recent ACOSS report, “Fuel on the fire”.

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Hidden gems in the Tax Discussion Paper (2): we don’t rely a lot more on income tax than other countries.

Reading the press you’d think a key message from the Govt’s Tax Discussion Paper is that Australia relies a lot more on income tax than other wealthy countries. Not so! Read the fine print and we find that 63% of public revenue in Oz comes from income and income-like taxes compared with 61% across the OECD.

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Hidden gems in the Tax Discussion Paper: Shocking news from Treasury – personal income tax as efficient as GST!

Business, Government, and “every pet shop galah” have been saying that we should rely less on personal income taxes and more on the GST because this would be good for the economy. In my blog ‘Who’s the fairest and most efficient of them all?” earlier this year, I challenged this view.

Treasury modelling of the economic impact of different taxes tucked away on p32 of the Government’s Tax Discussion Paper confirms my doubts. It should change the debate.

Now, Treasury has released the details of that modelling.

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How the Budget was mugged (Treasury publishes the photo)

New Treasury Secretary John Fraser’s first speech includes a picture showing how the Federal Budget was mugged during the mining boom:

“The start of the structural deterioration in the Commonwealth’s budget position began
before the global financial crisis.”

The following chart, included in his slides, shows how the windfall revenue gains from the boom between 2002 to 2008 (grey bars, circled by me) were spent (green, blue and red bars).

budget slippage-page0001

Bulging with company tax and capital gains tax revenues, the Federal Budget was mugged on its way to the bank and the proceeds spent equally on eight successive tax cuts (green bars) and spending programs (blue bars) that were often of dubious value  – including the Seniors Supplement and easing of pension asset tests for wealthy older people in 2007, and the Education Tax Refund in 2009.

“The green and blue bars below the line show that these positive revenue surprises were largely handed back through personal income tax cuts or spent.”

By 2009 it was all over. The then Government tried valiantly (and succeeded) to avoid a recession through stimulus spending which was later wound back (the blue bar outside the circle).

Fraser didn’t put much emphasis on the fiscal damage caused by those tax cuts (he’s from Treasury), except to point to another well known story – the waste of revenues in poorly targeted tax breaks for superannuation:

“Generous income testing arrangements for Family Tax Benefits in the early 2000s and access to million dollar contributions to tax-preferred superannuation through 2006-07 were notable examples of middle or higher income welfare that contributed to the problem.”

As the ACOSS submission to the Audit Commission argued, these Budget decisions had huge opportunity costs. Instead of well targeted spending to deal with pressing problems –  poverty, unaffordable housing, and the gaps in community services for people with disabilities and mental illness; people who had no need of more public support were offered  ‘bonus’ payments and fresh opportunities to avoid income tax in old age.

Future generations will pay for all this if the most wasteful and profligate Budget decisions aren’t reversed. We’ll also pay a high economic and social cost if the harshest savings measures in last year’s Budget  aren’t abandoned, starting with the denial of income support for unemployed young people. That Budget did include sensible measures, such as the removal of the Seniors Supplement, which should go ahead.

The bottom line though, is that Australian Government spending is for the most part well targeted (the graph below shows that our cash social security spending is third lowest in the OECD) a major reason Oz Governments spend less than most other wealthy countries. A Budget repair job which is confined to the spending side (as in 2014) will either fail (as in 2014) or cause social harm.

spending on benefits oecd10-page0001

If we are to provide the health and community services needed by an ageing population, Australian (and State) Governments will have to raise more revenue, and learn to do this in a more economically efficient way. [No, I’m not ‘jumping to the GST conclusion’. Let’s open our minds a bit. Take a look, for example, at the reforms being discussed in South Australia].