We are the co-authors of a study published today in the Medical Journal of Australia, which shows that the federal government’s income management policy is not making an impact on tobacco and health food sales in remote community shops in the NT. Smoking and poor diet are responsible for much of the health gap between indigenous and other Australians. We are concerned that indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin has responded to our study by highlighting the results of the government’s evaluation. She has told journalists that the government intends to press ahead with plans to roll out income management more broadly, and has appeared to dismiss our findings. The evaluation cited by the minister was based on interviews with 76 income management clients in four communities, telephone interviews with 66 store operators as well as interviews with business managers and other stakeholders across several locations. This is poor use of qualitative research to answer a question that essentially requires quantitative data: are people buying more healthy food as a result of income management? Our study provides that quantitative data. It used sales data to measure how much was being spent each month across 10 stores in the Northern Territory, 18 months before and 18 months after income management was introduced. In contrast, the government’s evaluation report of income management and spending relied entirely on people’s perceptions in a large number of interviews. We confirm store managers’ claims that there was no change in people’s spending on tobacco. However, in contrast to the government report, we found that spending on food and drinks and fruit and vegetables did not change with income management. Soft drinks sales increased. The one time during income management that spending went up for all store commodities was when people actually had more money: at the time of the government stimulus payment. Telling people of low income how they can use 50% of their income may make no difference to their spending, but giving a lump of cash does.

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(Source: Medical Journal of Australia -- click to enlarge)