Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Want the jobless to find jobs? Then increase the dole

It’s so familiar a part of political economy you could call it Galbraith’s Law, after John Kenneth Galbraith, the literary Canadian-American economist who put it into words. As the late senator John Button paraphrased it: the rich need more money as an incentive and the poor need less money as an incentive.

Consider the first actions of the re-elected Scott Morrison and his government. First, pushing through its three-stage tax plan, which in time will cut the income tax of those on the minimum wage by 1.5¢ in every dollar, those full-time workers on the median wage by 2.4¢ in every dollar, and those on $200,000 a year by 5.8¢ in the dollar.

Second, steadfastly resisting the ever-mounting calls for a rise in the single dole of $278 a week (less than 38 per cent of the minimum wage), which hasn’t been increased beyond inflation since 1997, making it now about $180 a week less than the pension.

It’s true that, until very recently, Labor was just as opposed to raising the dole as the Coalition has long been. Why? Because both sides know that doing so would displease many of their supporters.

As everyone knows, the dole is paid to lazy youngsters, who much prefer surfing to looking for a job – which, if only they’d get off their arses, they’d soon find. (Never mind that the number of unemployed vastly exceeds the number of job vacancies.)

Even so, the number of those calling for an increase is mounting rapidly. Apart from the welfare groups, it has long included the Business Council, which has now been joined by various economists – including those working for two of the big four accounting firms, plus someone called Dr Philip Lowe – and backbenchers from both sides, including Barnaby Joyce, who says the dole isn’t high enough for country people to afford the travel to job interviews.

Even John Howard, the man who initiated the freeze in real terms, now says it’s time for it to end.

Morrison, however, is unmoved. He argues the dole is better than it's been painted. It’s increased twice a year in line with inflation, and 99 per cent of recipients get other payments.

True. But what the 99 per cent get is the “energy supplement”, which is worth 63¢ a day and doesn’t change the claim that the dole amounts to about $40 a day.

About 40 per cent of singles on the dole get rent assistance – of up to $9.80 a day – provided they’re paying rent of more than $21.40 a day which, rest assured, they are. Much more.

There are 722,000 people on unemployment benefits. Half of them are over 45 – strange to think how sure people are that employers discriminate against older job applicants, but don’t ever imagine them being on the dole.

Similarly, more than a quarter of recipients have an illness or disability, but are on the dole because they’ve been denied the disability support pension. These people, along with more than 100,000 single parents, face challenges and discrimination in finding paid work.

Another argument ministers use is that the dole was only ever intended to be a temporary payment while people find another job and, indeed, two-thirds of people going on to it move off within 12 months.

But get your head around this: accepting that’s true, it’s also true that, at any point in time, two-thirds of people on the optimistically named Newstart allowance have been on it for a year or more. These are the long-term unemployed who, presumably, include many of those with particular challenges.

I agree with Morrison that “the best form of welfare is a job”. It’s true, too, that in recent years many additional, full-time jobs have been created. But it’s equally true that many of those jobs have gone to immigrants and other new entrants to the labour force, meaning the rate of unemployment hasn’t fallen below 5 per cent. That’s acceptable?

The truth is that, even in the city, the meanness of the dole makes it hard for people to afford the transport and other costs needed to search for jobs. The notion that poor people will seek work only under the lash of poverty is heartless nonsense.

Other facts are that the economy has slowed sharply since the middle of last year, employment is growing more slowly and unemployment is now rising.

This is why Reserve Bank governor Lowe has twice cut the official interest rate and is begging the government use its budget to do more to stimulate the economy. It partly explains his support for an increase in the dole – an extra $75 a week is the popular proposal – which, as a stimulus measure, has the great virtue of being likely to be spent fully and quickly by its impoverished recipients.

So why the refusal? For the reasons we’ve discussed but also because, having given up tax revenue of $300 billion over 10 years, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg now insists he can’t afford a dole increase costing a whopping $39 billion over 10 years. Too much threat to his promised return to budget surplus.

Strange logic. Should the economy’s slowdown not be reversed, unemployment – and the budgetary cost of the dole – will go a lot higher, and hopes of budget surpluses will evaporate, replaced by angry people accusing the government of economic incompetence.