‘Bludgers’ and ‘Parasites’: What Happened to Our Compassion?
Unemployment in Australia has long been a contentious issue, where there is usually no in between as many are quick to choose a side: either you feel compassion for those struggling to balance a basic standard of living with trying to look for work or you believe that no obstacle should have to stand in your way to finding one, no matter your circumstances. How hard can it be? Just get off your arse and get a job, right?
A recent article by Antony McMullen on Australian site The Punch titled ‘La Dole Cheque Vita is Not So Sweet on $16 a Day’ revealed the heartbreaking and appalling struggle thousands in Australia face as they try to attain some basic standard of living while trying to survive week to week on Centrelink’s Newstart Allowance. McMullen spoke with two recipients of the allowance in particular and painted a startling picture of having to give up the most basic of necessities we take for granted such as a car and even proper food stuffs in order to pay for bills and rent, as well as also having to put up with the stigma of being a ‘dole bludger’ as they tried to look for work in a job market that is now prone to outsourcing work and not so favourable to the older worker.
The comments in response to this article were mixed yet ran with a common theme. Some were obviously disgusted that many of those on the Newstart Allowance were actually allowed to live in such terrible circumstances and barely able to make ends meet, empathising, even identifying with their plight and left aghast at why nothing was still being done to prevent many from falling into poverty as a result of trying to survive on welfare and look for work.
But the majority of comments, however, could not have been more unsympathetic, more vitriolic and more offensive to those who were currently on the Newstart Allowance and those unemployed in general. Some even had the gall to make light of the issue and have a chuckle over the misery of others. Here is just a snippet of those who can’t see what all the fuss is about:
‘Let’s have opt in for dole bludgers, because I think they are “entitled” parasites that suck the guts out of the tax system. All the socialist deluded can contribute and leave the rest of us with the money we earned.’
‘I was trying to read this article but all I could see is wah wah wah wah give me more money wah wah wah. Some that have responded to this article have touched on the issues delicately but I will not. If you are on unemployment benefits, you are not contributing to society, society is contributing to you. I would therefore suggest that anyone on unemployment be thankful for what they have. The taxpaying public is not your bitch…’
‘…And what are the problems? Whether to watch Oprah or the channel 7 midday movie? Whether to wear the black or the grey tracksuit? Typical bleeding heart ignoramus. People on the dole choose to be there because they are too lazy to work. We have the lowest unemployment rate in generations. There is absolutely no excuse for anyone to be on the dole…’
‘The problem with social welfare is that it breeds softness, complacency and a whiney “it’s my right” attitude…’
And so the sniping, the over-generalising and stigmatising continued.
Although I was unsurprised, it was still shocking to see such selfishness and utter disdain for those on the Newstart Allowance, outright choosing to not consider the possibility of those actually suffering to survive under welfare, to actually believe that there are many who truly need help and cannot control their circumstances. And no, it’s not the ‘socialist ideology’ speaking, as one commenter in particular accused, it’s the fact that I believe it’s basic common sense and compassion we should have for one another when I say this, we help those who are unable to help themselves, no matter what.
It is incredibly unfortunate that those who are on the dole and genuinely struggling to both live to a basic standard and find work at the same time have to be shoved into the same boat as the minority of those who actually have rorted the system in the past. The constant stigmatisation by those who don’t have to worry about how they will pay their next bill or obtaining a job interview has long wracked those made unemployed for a variety of reasons, whether it be because of retrenchment, injury, financial loss or lack of training or skills, and have only been exacerbated by media scaremongering by such news programs as Today Tonight. Stories featuring such people as ‘Dole Dynasty’ the Mobbs family don’t help to lessen the criticism many on welfare receive as they try to retain both a job and their dignity. Despite what Today Tonight might like you to believe, living on welfare is not about sitting around on the couch and collecting a cheque each fortnight.
As long as we continue to perpetuate an image in our minds of the typical ‘dole bludger’ as unkempt and dishevelled and nothing more than drug addicts and alcoholics, we won’t be able to tackle the problem effectively. Stereotypes cause more damage than just saying a few harsh words and only serve to widen the divide between those who are able to live comfortably enough and those who struggle to find work and survive.
To provide some perspective on the situation, unemployment statistics in Australia are currently at 5.2%, as of January 2012 and unchanged from December 2011 where employment decreased to 0.3%. In terms of welfare fraud, this can be rather difficult to measure but statistics between 2008-09 show that only 1,045 convictions were recorded for defrauding Newstart Allowance, where rates remained stable during this period.
However, job availability in Australia is currently unequal and is incredibly concerning, and as revealed in McMullen’s article there are only three prospective people to one vacant position, and in November 2011 job vacancies fell to 194,000, with 575,000 Australians looking for work. Currently, there are 540,000 recipients on Newstart Allowance, with 210,000 having been out of work for more than two years. According to statistics by the Australian Bureau of Statistics provided in McMullen’s article, 30% of those on the Newstart Allowance have had to borrow money from family and friends in the past and 40% unable to pay bills on time, and on the single unemployment benefit only receive $474.90 a fortnight. This figure has not changed since 1994. Because of such a measly amount, those unemployed must make it stretch in order to cover rent, bills, transport, leisure and other necessities.
And because they are unable to afford such basics, jobseekers have lesser chance of actually finding a decent job as no car means no transport to work, no money means no new work clothes or tickets for public transport, no rent money means no roof over our heads and no money for leisure means no friends or fun for ourselves. The Newstart Allowance in its current state only serves to remind the unemployed of the constant threat they are under to meet all standards of a basic life most take for granted.
No one asks to live in poverty. No one asks to be retrenched from work. No one asks to have their businesses fail on them or suffer financially as a result of disastrous investments or the last recession where it results in losing not only their jobs but their homes and even other assets. No one asks for life to deal them a shitty hand and say ‘Hey, I think things are going a little too well for me, you mind making them a little more difficult from now on?’ To think in such simplistic terms is utterly ignorant and incredibly foolish.
Sadly, as society seems to have become more self-absorbed and more disconnected from one another we choose to dismiss the struggles of the less fortunate, even claiming they are responsible for their own problems. Those who commented on McMullen’s article and criticised the unemployed seem to take an almost schadenfreude view of them, taking joy in the misery of others as they look down upon them and the circumstances they strive to free themselves from. Well, if they’re able to find success in the workforce, then surely it cannot be as hard for everyone else, can it? So blasé about generalising others they refuse to even consider that one day they may end up in the same situation should the universe stop being so kind to them and instead find themselves at the end of the unemployment line. We’ll see who’s laughing then.
I think the issue of those struggling to survive on the Newstart Allowance and looking for work was probably summed up best by ‘Prosperity’ in the comments section to McMullen’s article, and whether you’re religious or not you can’t help but agree: ‘One can’t help but note the compassionate, Christian concern shown in so much of this correspondence for others less fortunate than themselves. “Get a job”. “Give them a sack of potatoes”. “Their dole cheque covers their booze and their smokes.’ Is that what Our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ would say?’
And right after ‘Prosperity’ wrote this, they were, of course, mocked for their opinion.