Vin Martin.

Social Security Reform: Revisiting Henderson,
Poverty, & Basic Income

15 & 16 February 2018 University of Melbourne
A conference organised by the Melbourne Institute and the Brotherhood of St Laurence

What do you want from life? A basic level of security and wellbeing? Opportunities for personal development, and freedom to participate in society and in your communities of interest? Access, if you need it, to a safety-net level of income that has regard to your needs and adjusts to life’s circumstances, for example retrenchment, a relationship breakdown, sudden onset of disability? In Australia in the 21st century, it shouldn’t be too much to ask. When times are tough and you cannot access such safety nets, you could rightly feel your life is impoverished.

The Henderson poverty enquiry: half a century on

Over 40 years ago in the Inquiry into Poverty commissioned by the McMahon Government, Ronald Henderson articulated principles centred on the above safety nets, and continued when Labor came to office in 1972. The Inquiry estimated that 10% of households were in poverty.

The world is a vastly different place today. But guess what? The rate of poverty is still around 10%. Professor Henderson, then Director of the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic & Social Research at the University of Melbourne, developed the ‘poverty line’ concept, still measured and refined to this day to calculate the numbers of people in poverty.

Since the Inquiry, research into deprivation suffered by different groups allows us to identify those most in need. But conference participants heard how a gap had emerged between pensions and benefits, access to benefits was increasingly conditional, and the administration of conditionality is insensitive to the human pain and anxiety associated with vulnerability and uncertainty for those experiencing poverty.

Brian Howe’s call to action

Brian Howe.

From a rousing call to action by the ageless Brian Howe, to sharp insights into the economic dilemmas faced by single women raising children from former relationships, by brilliant young Swinburne academic Kay Cook, the conference looked broad (eg the need for a long-term vision) and to the here and now (eg raising the level of Newstart benefits).

The program was littered with names of trusted academics: Sheila Shaver, Peter Whiteford, Peter Saunders, Francisco Azpitarte, and international expert Bea Cantillon, to name just a few. The book from the conference, which is in the pipeline, will be a major resource for academics and public servants for years to come.

We heard how peak welfare groups and business groups support an increase in Newstart benefits. Perhaps, tri-partisan political support might follow – Coalition, Labor, and the Greens. Surely, that’s not too much to ask. When business and welfare groups agree, the earth can move. Remember the importance of that alliance to the introduction of the GST?

For the long term, we heard how some concepts might be worthy of discussion and analysis: a rethink of taxation concessions and the potential for social security insurance. Post-Piketty, many commentators dwell on increasing inequality, but this should not be at the expense of the needs of those in poverty.

Speakers were acutely aware of fiscal limits on what policy options might be possible and practical. However, there was consensus that the current blind faith in conditionality as an allocator of benefits carried far too high a human price tag, as vulnerable powerless people in poverty tried to navigate their way through the bureaucratic maze.

Increasing need

A better allocator is need: the needs of single mothers, refugees and migrants, people with disability, indigenous people in cities and in remote areas, people experiencing homelessness, workless households with children, and young unemployed.

But households need not be workless to fall into poverty. The decline of manufacturing and traditional blue collar employment, as well as rising casualisation of new jobs shine, a light on the working poor – a category once unheard-of in Australia.

The Brotherhood of St Laurence, one of the conference organisers, along with the Melbourne Institute, told us about Trish who lived on $13 a day after allowing for the costs of housing, running a motor car, water, and energy.

On Friday morning, closure of Melbourne’s trains required me to take a taxi ride worth $25 to the conference. I’m not in poverty. But I wondered if someone else in Melbourne in a similar financial position to Trish missed a critical medical appointment with risk to health and wellbeing. Solutions are needed for poverty now and in the long term. Is it too much to ask?

Initial reflections by Vin Martin, who worked as a research assistant at the Melbourne Institute in the early 1970s, but was not directly involved in the work on the Poverty Inquiry.

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