There’s nothing more humbling than lining up at Centrelink. Standing in the queue is an immediate admission of your financial vulnerability, your hope the system can provide you, or a loved one, with support. And public confirmation that financially things aren’t going very well for you. You never feel like a winner at Centrelink. Every time I step through those automatic doors I feel like a loser. It’s not the fault of the staff. I have always found them to be immensely helpful and courteous, but they are bound by bureaucracy, and a permeating narrative that correlates Centrelink recipients with hopelessness and dependence. It’s a punitive system that punishes people with poverty for being unworthy capitalists.
If you need Centrelink payments – because you are elderly, or disabled, have a mental health issue, or are unemployed, you will live below the poverty line.
You will be dehumanised; you will have a number. You will have a MyGov account.
You become a number – a stat – in the report card of economic growth for the incumbent government.
It’s in their interests to make sure you’re not there. Using long wait times and impossible compliance, termed ‘mutual obligation’, they have the ability to ‘disappear’ you, both from the system – and the culture. Terms like ‘dole bludger’ are never far from the lips of the average working Australian who still perceives Centrelink recipients as some sort of scourge on tax payers.
I had to go to Centrelink recently. COVID regulations meant the queue was relegated to the street, so while we were socially distanced, we also experienced some kerbside public shaming. Wheeled office chairs were assembled on the sloped pavement so that we could wait the hour-and-a-half with some degree of dignity. I joked that this was in fact a swifter way to bring down the numbers; the office chairs seemed to want to take us down the pavement and onto the road. ‘It takes too long for poverty to kill us. This is a much more effective technique!’
Of course COVID has changed a lot of things. Many who have never stepped foot inside Centrelink have had to apply for JobSeeker. A sudden loss of income, a sense of powerlessness, and an uncertain future have become the new normal for once financially secure Australians. Perhaps this circumstance can provide an economic and empathetic insight into what it means to be unemployed.
Right now the poorest people in Australia are being given the dignity of having their income doubled. While mine has reduced significantly, even with a government subsidy, it gives me some joy to know that this might be a chance for the vulnerable to catch up – to have a reprieve from the endless judgement and struggle. Perhaps this is when we, as a nation, can make the decision to move away from the punitive notion of castigating the underprivileged for being underprivileged. Where we no longer need to use money to confirm we are more righteous, or more legitimate, than any other citizen.
When the JobSeeker and JobKeeper subsidies expire – why not continue with a Universal Basic Income? This would be a guaranteed unconditional minimum income for every Australian. This isn’t a new idea. Philosopher Bertrand Russell argued for this in the early 1900’s – asserting that it combined the advantages of socialism and anarchism, and fulfilled the moral right everyone had to the means of subsistence. No one in our affluent Australia should have to live in poverty. Homelessness could be abolished overnight. If the average citizen was given a basic wage of $25k per year, everyone could access a reasonable standard of living. Poverty could be eradicated.
The argument against this is that it would encourage laziness, and people wouldn’t work as much, therefore reducing taxable incomes to pay the basic wage. I think the COVID lockdown has shown that many people actually miss working. People have worked from home. They have worked long hours without the paternalistic structures of boss and master monitoring their every move. Many find meaning and connection in what they do. We need to change how we view the economy and the purpose that it serves. In the US, public health expert Jeffrey Levi has said that Trump ‘views people as collateral damage to salvage the economy.’ What is the point of democracy if it means being thrown under the bus? The people are not there to serve the economy. The economy is there to serve the people… and I don’t mean as a dish in the capitalist kitchen.