Opinion article

If the best form of welfare is a job: disrupting disadvantage through employment

Following the release of Disrupting disadvantage: setting the scene, CEDA is releasing a series of articles from leading thinkers in the field that explore different aspects of disadvantage in Australia. Anglicare WA Chief Executive Officer, Mark Glasson, explores ways we can improve employment outcomes to limit disadvantage. 

CEDA’s recent report, Disrupting disadvantage: setting the scene, the first in a series of three, seeks to identify areas where entrenched economic and social disadvantage might be disrupted, and to use this as a starting point for a more systematic approach to addressing the problem. The report makes a succinct case that we need to provide more effective support to those already in need and, most importantly, provide the necessary support and programs for at-risk individuals before they fall into disadvantage.

A crucial aspect of this is ensuring people of all skill and qualification levels can access employment. However, Anglicare Australia’s recent Jobs Availability Snapshot 2019, which measures the number of jobs available for people without formal qualifications, shows that this is an area where Australia is falling short.

The snapshot shows that jobseekers without formal qualifications, who are in greatest need of support from the Jobactive network, are also facing the greatest competition for work. As the labour market shifts towards a more service-based economy, there has also been a shift towards higher skilled jobs. Over the last two decades, jobs at the highest skill level have comprised 45.3 per cent of total employment growth. By contrast, jobs at the lowest skill level comprised only 8.6 per cent of total employment growth. This trend is expected to continue.

The longer people are unemployed, the longer they are likely to remain so. With lowest skill jobseekers spending an average of five years looking for work, it is critical to explore the failures of the system and how it could be fixed. The Snapshot recommends four actions to take.

Create the right jobs in the right places
The Federal Government likes to say that ‘the best form of welfare is a job’, but the Snapshot shows the jobs simply aren’t there for those who need them most.

For instance, in WA, while new opportunities are opening up for skilled workers, entry-level jobs, such as cleaning and laundry services, labouring, clerical and office support and food preparation, are quickly disappearing. In the last 12 months, WA has gone from fewer than six people competing for every entry-level vacancy to more than seven.

Nationally, five job-seekers were competing for every entry-level job. In Tasmania, there are a staggering fourteen jobseekers competing for each of these jobs.

Direct job creation programs and training are required that match the skills of those looking for work. These programs could also respond to labour shortages in the community in fields such as disability and aged care, where the work is suitable and meaningful.

Urgent reform of the Jobactive Network.
As the benefit system has become more conditional and punitive for the unemployed, we need the Government to embrace the recommendations of its own review into employment services. The most crucial of these is to move from a motivation-zapping, punitive approach to a more tailored, person-centred approach for people struggling to find and keep work. This support must be built on seeing the whole person and responding to their strengths and aspirations as much as their obstacles to success.

Raise the rate
The punishingly low level of Newstart and related payments are stopping people from looking for work. Not only does the inadequate level of this payment make ‘job-readiness’ costs such as transport and clothing unaffordable, it puts people at increased risk of homelessness.

The rate of Newstart and Youth Allowance should be increased immediately, and an independent commission should set and index these payments to ensure they keep pace with living costs. People seeking work should not be trapped in poverty.

Disability Support Pension
Changes to the eligibility and assessment of the Disability Support Pension (DSP) have left thousands of people with disability stranded on Newstart – a much lower payment. This is causing extreme hardship, forcing people to look for jobs without proper support, and risks worsening entrenched disadvantage. Restoring wider access to the Disability Support Pension, and giving automatic access to specialist Disability Employment Services, would help people in this position look for work.

The Government’s own data shows that the current approach to supporting vulnerable people into jobs is not working anywhere near well enough and is further entrenching disadvantage. Structural reform in the medium-term, alongside immediate increases to income support payments, would help people find jobs, preventing entrenched disadvantage and delivering the individual and community benefits of greater economic and social participation.

Beyond these four rather technocratic ways of altering current welfare state structures, I believe Australia needs to make a more fundamental human and holistic shift in the way we conceive of supporting people in to work. In the spirit of CEDA’s report, we can think and act more creatively – not only as government but as not for profits and private sector organisations, as communities and individuals.

We need to go beyond the transactional, individualised service culture of welfare and create a support culture that strengthens relationships between us all, not just between government services and the jobseeker. We need a culture with people, rather than efficiency, at the centre – a relationship culture, that rediscovers the shared resources of the community, both material and relational. The strength of an inclusive community identity that gives us possibility and an environment that focuses on capability, rather than what we lack.
About the authors

Mark Glasson

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Mark Glasson is the CEO of Anglicare WA. He has over twenty-five years’ experience across a range of human services which includes service delivery to families and children, community development, public policy and services to offenders. Mark has been the Chairperson of Shelter WA since 2015 and is the Co-convenor of the Home Stretch WA Campaign and a member of the Ending Homelessness WA Alliance. He has held senior executive positions for the Government of Western Australia and also worked in Local Government and community organisations.