Monday, May 23, 2011

Labor's lick and promise to beached job-seekers

You have to feel sorry for pollies in government. While economists (who have a built-in bias against government intervention) are forever pressing them to cut government spending, and the punters are perpetually refusing to pay more tax, everyone is urging them to do something about an endless number of genuinely worthy causes.

How can they win? They can't. Unfortunately, rather than limiting the number of problems they know they can afford to tackle, they have a tendency to want to give the appearance of fixing every problem they're asked to fix.

Take one of the budget's highlights, its package of measures to raise the workforce participation of welfare recipients of working age. With the exception of the package to assist the mentally ill, it's hard to think of a worthier cause.

It ticks so many boxes. We know the mining construction boom will soon create widespread shortages of skilled labour and even unskilled labour. So getting people off welfare and into paid employment - adding to the supply of labour - really helps us cope with the boom in a non-inflationary way. What make sense economically also makes sense socially. I have no doubt that getting these people into jobs is the best thing we could do to advance their wellbeing. I don't doubt that most of them would be delighted to have a job and be normal, even a job that isn't so wonderful - and even though more than a few of them have slipped so deep into the Slough of Despond they aren't thinking straight.

Only the ignorant and prejudiced would imagine people enjoy not having to work, being on the outer of society and living on a pittance. But even these misguided fools - of whom there are many - would be gratified to know the supposedly lazy had been put back to work.

Julia Gillard has said we will need to find 2 million extra workers in coming years. It so happens there are 2 million social-security recipients of working age: in round figures, 800,000 people on the disability support pension, 450,000 on sole-parent benefits (most with preschool children), 600,000 on the dole (most of them unemployed for more than a year) and 150,000 on the carer payment.

Of course, many of these people - the seriously disabled, for instance - aren't capable of working no matter how much they'd like to. And there are other sources of potential workers on which employers can draw: people who delay their retirement and mothers who can do paid work or more paid work. But as unemployment falls, those still out of work are the highly disadvantaged. About a third of those on the dole have been out of work for more than two years, and most of these "very long-term unemployed" have less than year 12 qualifications.

So a major investment in training, work experience in ordinary jobs, mentoring, childcare and health and disability services will be needed.

Gillard makes a good start in the budget with wage subsidies for the very long-term unemployed, vocational training and mentoring for teenage sole parents, and more help from Jobs Services Australia providers for early school-leavers to complete their education.

But the scale of these measures is pathetically small: 10,000 wage subsidies a year to share between more than 200,000 very long-term unemployed, and the teenage mums who get special help account for just 3 per cent of all those on sole-parent benefits.

Those measures that are on a large scale - such as 11 months a year of intensive job search activity for all very long-term unemployed and quarterly interviews with all disabled people under 35 who have some capacity to work - are the ones least likely to get results.

The 11 months of intensive activity - equivalent to two days a week - will be funded to the tune of just $1000 a person. Whoopee-do.

One good move is to make it more attractive for sole parents on the dole to do part-time work by cutting the rate at which their benefits are withdrawn from 60c in the dollar to 40c. But the cost of this will be paid for by the sole parents themselves. Those presently on the sole-parent benefit will be moved on to the dole once their youngest child reaches 12 (instead of the Howard government's 16), causing them to lose $56 a week.

Similarly, the cost of the measure making it more attractive for unemployed youths on the youth allowance to do part-time work will be more than covered by the decision to move unemployed people aged 21 off the dole and on to the youth allowance, causing them to lose $42 a week. The rationale for the latter move is to remove a financial disincentive for 21-year-olds to stay in education. Fair enough. But the government could have achieved the same effect by increasing the youth allowance for low-income students to the level of the dole.

It would be nice to believe the cuts in benefits to some of the most disadvantaged people were motivated by penny-pinching, rather than a desire to be seen punishing people widely regarded as the undeserving poor. (That news of the "crackdown" was leaked to the Murdoch tabloids does make you wonder.)

There is a range of likely outcomes from all this: employment gains and better skills for a small percentage of people on social security, financial pain for those whose payments are cut, and little change (apart from inconvenience) for the majority of those social-security recipients who have some potential to work.

Lacking enough money to actually fix the plethora of problems they're asked to fix, pollies have a tendency to spread the money they've got very thinly, so that none of the problems gets fixed. Everything gets a lick and a promise.