A new report has illuminated the failure of the jobactive service, with the vast majority of both users and providers castigating the program. With it under review, I hope real change is on the way.
“Dole Bludger”, “Welfare Cheat”, “Centrelink rorter”.
All common terms we hear when we read stories about our income safety net. Over many years, a negative view has been cultivated about those who need to use our social welfare system. While politicians are quick to cluck in sympathy at the plight of middle-class families who are facing wage stagnation and high costs of living, little is directed to those at the bottom of the economic pile.
We have been sold a story that the income safety net must come with strings attached. We are told that financial support must only be available with the strictest of conditions, lest the average taxpayer will be victimised. Even though our economy can’t provide a job for every one person able to work, we are told that those in receipt of Newstart and other working-age payments must be gainfully employed. As part of the program, they are subject to strict targets around applying for jobs, attending interviews, and in return, they are eligible for support.
The jobactive program has been in operation since 2015, and is actioned by 42 external providers. It is a system currently up for review, and to its credit, the Government recognises that improvement is needed. This week, we’ve heard the voices of those who have participated in the program via a new report from the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS). This report has illuminated the major design flaws of this program; its key finding is that it has not helped the marginalised, but emboldened further distress and anxiety.
In a political landscape that has focused on service users as clients and customers, it is pretty shocking to find out that within this survey cohort almost three-quarters of respondents have been left dissatisfied with their experience. Much of this dissatisfaction is generated by a program that while aimed to assist people to get a job seems to prioritise compliance (to meet the activity requirements to receive payments such as Newstart) rather than providing actual help. While other service systems (such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme) are promoting consumer control and choice, the jobactive program remains an island upon itself.
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These stories have also highlighted what those who are contracted to manage the program face: impossibly high caseloads, a high turnover of staff and the burden of monitoring the mountainous compliance requirements of their job seekers.
In considering public policy and social program design, we are not often asked to think about how programs make people feel. We are not often challenged to consider whether or not programs are really producing more effective results or instead reinforcing stigma and discrimination. For most people, unemployment is damaging to one’s self-esteem and confidence. The longer it continues, the further those feelings grow. It is confronting to consider that the requirements we place on people who are unemployed can make this experience worse.
For decades, the government has outsourced the responsibility for helping people get a job. Through the various iterations of the program, history has repeated. Stretched providers requiring a focus on compliance and responsibility for reporting breaches have been a standard as much as the challenge of unrealistic job activity requirements. The result is an inability to provide a stable workforce.
As the Government looks to review the current program and design the next version of this employment service, the only hope is that they heed the words of the people who have been directly impacted in the past. Let us hope their stories influence policy, and let us hope that the fundamental principle of helping people be positive contributors to the economy drives the program, rather than established populist rhetoric.