Punitive welfare laws bad for mental health


A new report says clients are forced to ‘jump through hoops’ at Centrelink.

New federal government Welfare to Work and WorkChoices laws have heightened the anxiety of people on income support living with a mental illness, according to a report commissioned by the NSWNA.

The Howard government’s Welfare to Work laws are the most radical reform of Australia’s income support system since the Social Security Act in 1947. The laws rely on a ‘big stick’ approach to get people with disabilities, single parents and the long term employed back into work.

The new laws have also had a negative impact on mental health workers, says the report, Jumping Through Hoops, based on interviews with 22 mental health professionals.

These mental health professionals reported numerous instances of their clients presenting in highly emotional states in recent months.

This included clients who were fearful and anxious about changes, both actual and anticipated, to Welfare to Work arrangements.

A major concern voiced by the mental health workers was Centrelink’s ‘job capacity assessment’ and the way it was applied to their clients.

‘Typically, the health professionals we interviewed referred to the new procedures as “punitive”, “penalty-based” and the “big-stick approach”. Further, they saw the job capacity assessment as involving no support or understanding of these clients who were required to “jump through hoops”,’ said Christie Breakspear, one of the authors of the report.

‘The consequence for clients of not complying with the new system is having their payment cancelled for eight weeks.’

Centrelink assessors are not required to have a mental health background and this can lead to flawed assessments of job capacity according to the report.

‘Centrelink asks the wrong questions of my clients, they don’t have the expertise. Lots of enquires about a person’s mobility, can they move from their bedroom to kitchen. Completely irrelevant,’ one experienced clinical psychologist told researchers. “My clients’ problems are that they think the food in the kitchen is poisoned, and that someone is out to get them – that sort of thing. There are no boxes to tick on their forms about this.”’

One caseworker said the new system seemed to be based on the premise that the average person with a disability is trying to rip off the system.

‘I just don’t think that’s true. I think the average person in the system is very honest and their work ethic is just as high as everyone else in the population. But this new system seems to be punitive, about catching people out.

‘It’s a very small percentage of people who are doing the wrong thing, but they get all the publicity,’ the caseworker said.

The report finds that some of the mental health professionals have found the laws impacting on their own jobs and health. For some the laws had led to a heavier and more complex workload, with workers forced into the role of advocate for clients dealing with Centrelink.

Some also reported a loss of control over their jobs as Centrelink became the arbiter of services.

‘I feel more worried about clients and what will happen to them. I think they are being punished for having a mental illness or being homeless. I also feel like I, personally, have to know a lot more about Centrelink,’ said one community nurse.

Christie Breakspear says all of the participants in the research saw the benefits of encouraging and supporting their clients to participate in the work force.

Penalising the poor ramps up

In the first full year of operation of Welfare to Work, there were 15,509 eight-week no-payment penalties imposed, whereas during the last full year of the previous system there were 6,432 eight-week no-payment penalties – a 140% increase

The Welfare Rights Centre has estimated the combined monetary value of these penalties at $27m. and has claimed that ‘this has come out of the pockets of the most vulnerable Australians’ (Rights Review September 2007, p3).