Humiliation and the dole: a forgotten debate

A decent society is one whose institutions do not humiliate people – Avishai Margalit


The Great Depression stripped many Australian workers of their dignity. For many, applying for government relief was like begging for charity. Instead of giving unemployed workers cash, state governments doled out relief through tickets that could be redeemed for food. The recipient would then present their ticket to the milkman, the baker, the butcher and the grocer and recieve their rations. Often they would have to work for this ‘dole’. To get any kind of relief, applicants had to show that they had exhausted all their resources and were incapable of supporting themselves or their families. Many found this means test humiliating.

In the wake of the depression it was harder for people to believe that unemployment was always the result of laziness or personal inadequacy. To many Australian, it no longer seemed decent to humiliate unemployed workers as a way of deterring idleness and dependency. When legislation to create unemployment benefits came before the House of Representatives, Labor MP Thomas Willams declared that the scheme: "will go a long way towards ensuring that the precious children of this vast and undeveloped continent will never suffer the shame and degradation which seared the souls of the children of this country during the depression" (p 2353 pdf).

But while the major political parties agreed that Australia needed a modern social security system, they could not agree about how it would work. The Labor government wanted unemployment benefits to be funded out of tax revenue. But Robert Menzies wanted an insurance scheme funded out of contributions. He argued:

… contribution preserves self-respect; it enables social security schemes to be kept solvent; and it dispenses with the humiliation that is involved in a means test. Humiliation is involved in such a test. The moment we establish, or perpetuate, the principle that the citizen, in order to get something he needs, or wants, and to which he has looked forward, must prove his poverty, we convert him into a suppliant to the State for benevolence. That position is inconsistent with the proper dignity of the citizen in a democratic country. People should be able to obtain these benefits as a matter of right, with no more loss of their own standards of self-respect than would be involved in collecting from an insurance company the proceeds of an endowment policy on which they have been paying premiums for years (p 2263 pdf).

Menzies argued that a insurance system based on worker contributions was "an approach of virility and self-reliance and that Labor’s scheme based on "non-contributory benevolence" would pauperize people (p 2264). Another UAP MP, Rupert Ryan, argued that "People who contribute personally to these funds must develop a sense of responsibility, and they must also have a sense of entitlement which is necessarily missing in relation to funds established on a dole or charity basis" (p 2375 pdf).

Of course there was another reason conservatives opposed a non-contributory scheme — it redistributed income. As Mr Ryan explained "The steep graduations of tax impose excessive burdens on all classes of the people, but particularly on the high and middle income groups."

This debate between contributory and non-contributory schemes of social security is almost forgotten now. Few politicians talk about humiliation and shame. Instead we seem to be falling backwards into to the kinds of policies Australia had before the war — income management, punitive work for the dole and the deliberate shaming of unpopular groups like the young unemployed.

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11 Responses to Humiliation and the dole: a forgotten debate

  1. Jon Altman says:

    Don, that is a very thought provoking and well researched post for the current time. I am writing this comment from Maningrida, an Aboriginal township in Arnhem Land. It has particular poignancy.Thirteen years after that debate it was established by the Australian colonial state to repatriate what were then referred to as troublesome bush ‘natives’ from Darwin and centralise people living in the then Arnhem Land Reserve in a settlement. Then in the 1960s policy shifted and the settlement trasformed into a total institution to demonstrate that assimilation and economic development were possibilities in thi remotest of regions. The local people never ceded sovereignty to the settler colonial state and never entered into any compact or treaty to voluntarily participate in this experiment; they were in effect wards of the state, legal minors, given no choice, The excperiment failed spectacularly despite numerous ambitious projects and much state underwriting, proper feasibility studies were never undertaken. Subsequently from the late 1960s people started to receive welfare entitlements, first child endowments and pensions and then in the 1970s unemployment benefits. For about 20 years from 1990 they participated in an active workfare scheme called the Community Development Employment Program with some degree of local success. Then that scheme was replaced by Newstart and some state-funded employment. People here have always been humiliated and demeaned for not working like settler colonists; and more recently like good neoliberal subjects motivated by materialism, self interest and individual benefit. The probelm is that there are limited commercial opportunity and a stunted mainstream labour market and competition from better qualified more materially acquisitive non-Indigenous people. And the local people have norms that emphasise kin, family, community, norms that match their forms of land ownership now recognised in law. People barely survive on welfare, costs of goods and services are sky high but still they are demeaned for living in squalor in overcrowded public housing. Your post reminds us that Robert Menzies who presided over this period of forced and failed assimilation policy had earlier believed in treating Australians with dignity rather than humiliation and shame. It will be to our collective national shame if some of the punitive measures targeting Indigenous Australians in particular with income management, punitive work for the dole, enforced poverty from reduced income supprot, and deliberate negative stereotyping escalate. Surely there are more dignified and productive measures to assist marginalised Australians, especially those coercively encapsulted into the ‘modern’ Australian state, than those being proposed in the 2014-15 Budget, and probably 20 budgets before that. As you say, so we have to revisit earlier harsh and inhumane times, history shows that we do not learn from history but can’t we?

  2. Paul Frijters says:

    shaming is a very cheap means of providing incentives but I agree that the happiness cost of it is large. Partially that is what disability is now all about: a socially acceptable way to drop out.

  3. jane says:

    Menzies obviously favoured the type of “unemployment insurance” workers in the US pay. However, once that runs out people have no means of support.

    Demonising the unemployed was ramped up to an art form in the late 70s and beyond, beginning with the Fraser government which successfully transferred people’s anger at austerity measures to the people who were its victims.

    Successive governments have read from the same script to deflect anger at poor policies onto the people who are its victims and with the Abbott government we are seeing even more extreme measures taken to protect their billionaire patrons and further disadvantage those least able to bear the burden.

    If this budget is allowed to pass unamended, many more thousands will lose their jobs and we will be in very real danger of pushing the country into deep recession, prompting this government to impose more austerity measures which have been proved to be counter productive.

    The Rudd government had absorbed the lessons of the past and steered Australia through the GFC with little damage to the economy and employment.

    It’s a pity this government has neither the wit or desire to avoid the chaos and suffering that will result by going down the austerity path.

  4. derrida derider says:

    This debate between contributory and non-contributory schemes of social security is almost forgotten now.

    Only in Australia – it is still a lively issue in many countries. Perhaps it ought to be a lively one here too, but the framing of debate on our current system as being about “middle class welfare” and “a culture of entitlement” serves to suppress it.

  5. Mel says:

    Had a quick look at the ABS figures, currently we have approx 700,000 unemployed and 140,000 job vacancies. I think you’d have to go back to the sixties to find a time when anyone could simply walk into a job. Unless I’m missing something, it doesn’t matter how well trained or motivated job seekers are, capitalism almost always has a massive mismatch between available jobs and job seekers so huge numbers of people are going to miss out. It’s a bit like musical chairs, really. So what’s the point of humiliating people?

    • john Walker says:

      And the quite small ‘savings’ gained, are provably illusory – charitable groups will pick up the difference- as much as they can- and donations to charitable groups are mostly tax deductible.

    • Julie Thomas says:

      Hi Mel, I have found that the idea of full employment is incomprehensible to young people, and even my own children didn’t believe there ever was a time when this was the case in Oz.

      I had to tell them about when I ‘ran away’ to Sydney in the 1960’s as a 16 year old and went to the Social Security office – social security? wtf is that! There was no dole available or youth allowance but they did bring out a pile of job cards a few inches high. There would have been at least 20 jobs I could choose from.

      I lived in a share house with a constantly changing population of other young runnaways – all with very rational reasons for choosing not to live at home – and we survived by taking turns to work for a few weeks or months to buy food drugs and pay the rent, and then we would quit when we had to deal with our dysfunction and the pain of being dysfunctional and not fitting in to the rigid and disapproving society and families we all came from.

      It must have been very disappointing for employers though.

      But through this experience, I found out a lot about these employers – entrepreneurs? They were just arseholes, liars, unethical and quite stupid really. I did find one job that I would have loved to keep but I had lied about my age to get the job – more money for an 18 year old – and so when I finally had to produce a birth certificate, I had to quit.

  6. paul walter says:

    Yes it is humiliating. The treatment of unemployed people has been deteriorating off a very low base in the first place for decades.
    This lot is particularly vicious though as the treatment of young people in general misanthropic is the word that comes to mind, both as regards higher education and in the treatment of young unemployed when jobs are scarce and many of these go to exploited visa labour anyway.

    I have never understood sado economics and the possibility of this diminishes with each passing day.

  7. Jason Wilson says:

    Nice post Don. As hinted above, the political common sense about the necessity of providing full employment has also disappeared. Have I ever heard an Australian politician fess up to permanent, structural unemployment as a feature of the Australian economy?

  8. paul walter says:

    Yes, Jason, that seems a very “Mengele” sort of thought.

  9. Fair work for fair pay says:

    We do contribute, through our taxes, and our parents and relatives contribute. It’s good to have a system that does not humiliate – surely we can come up with an adapted version of Menzies “respect”- based social security and the safety net concept.

    Yes, I think I agree with the musical chairs interpretation – we need a more reliable marriage between a) “benefits” such as disability pensions, NewStart, Youth Allowance, Parenting payment; and b) employment / careers. Leaving employment as an open market, with little coordination, and then underpinned by workforthedole programs, is a little 16th century in its lack of foresight.

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