One of the most obvious inconsistencies in the budget was the government’s claims for an egalitarian redistribution approach while proposing $60 per week income cut  for 100,000 sole parents. On Meet the Press on Sunday, Anthony Albanese repeatedly ducked a why-do-that question by talking about finding them paid jobs. This suggests the government assumes cutting already low incomes makes people more likely to find jobs and that jobs are there.

One of the difficulties faced by a Labor government is trying to convince voters that it does have clear Labor values. Its mantra of being there for working families mixes with occasional accusations that Abbott, etc, are pro-rich, does not add up to fairness for all. The underlying message of the new payments illustrates its confused beliefs that voters are for sale to the higher bidder and voters will appreciate  fairness and show loyalty.

However, this blatant marketing strategy was already undermined by the government’s failure to include a badly needed rise for the inadequate Newstart payments. This will be the lower payment for sole parents. The ALP’s advisers’ cynical strategy assumes that “working families” would share their views on non-employed (bludgers). Even though the cuts did not get high media coverage, there was enough for the Robin Hood image to be criticised by welfare advocates and even many of its own backbenchers.

The ALP has developed some extraordinary authoritarian, punitive policies in the social areas and the budget provisions continue the conservative tendencies. Some familiarity with its own data would show the existing Newstart recipients have few chances of finding paid work and the numbers will soon swell with the extra sole parents and the somewhat disabled victims of new standards.

The government operates under the false assumption that there are available jobs for the unemployed who are not prepared to take them. Therefore, the government can pressure them by low income and further conditionality into services that reluctant or untrained  Newstart recipients need. The government claims are that the unemployment problem is in the supply side of the equation so starving them into compliance is for their own good.

Not only is this collection of attitudes reminiscent of the 19th-century Poor Laws approach, it also fails dismally to understand the demands of the labour market or the prejudices of many of its decision makers. Current unemployment rates are at least as much the fault of the demand side of the equation, i.e. the number and types of jobs on offer and the decision makers as the supply side. The government’s own figures show that most of the demand is for recent experience, youth, mobility and specific qualifications.

The government ignores its own website, which shows what jobs are available and who is officially job hunting. The figures barely overlap as demand is is for mobility, skill and experiences. This site has the most recent summary of job opportunities. In March there were ads for 225,200 job vacancies over the whole of Australia. These figures tend to be consistent with other indexes so, while it may understate the totals somewhat, it is probably a good indicator of what is available. Note the decrease in numbers over the past years:

“The Internet Vacancy Index (IVI) increased by 0.8% in March 2012 in trend terms, and has now increased by 1.3% since December 2011. Over the year, however, the IVI has fallen by 7.2%, and is 41.0% below the March 2008 peak.”

There are 774,124 government-sanctioned official job seekers for maybe about 250,000 vacancies. These are all  registered with Job Services Australia. They compete with all those other job seekers who are not on benefits or even officially unemployed.  They consist of 501,630 on Newstart plus 83,557 on Youth Allowance, 70,661 on parenting payments single and a scatter of further categories of those on payments looking for jobs. This means more than three such unemployed job seekers could potentially be looking at each listed job. However, the ratio of seekers to jobs becomes much worse when further data are examined.

First, the types of jobs on offer do not match many of the unemployed with limited qualifications. The list has 130,000-plus jobs, described as for managers, professionals, and trade/technicians, most presumably requiring qualifications and experiences. There may be more appropriate openings among the 15,000 or so community services worker jobs, or 17,000 labouring jobs but other areas such as sales and clerical again would often require skills and experience. So, out of all the above sectors, there may be about 50,000 vacancies that don’t require proof of skills and recent experiences. How many of these would be available part-time, say in school hours, is not indicated.

Secondly, who are these job seekers? They are not a broad cross section of the population. They tend to be older or younger: 212,211 job seekers are aged over 45, and therefore likely to be regarded by many employers as too old.  The 85,524 people under 20 probably lack any workforce credentials or experience and may have few attractions for employers with choices. Over 245,000, all up, have been on payments for more than 24 months so are likely not to present well and may not be seen by employers as good risks or having recent experience. Many are also responsible carers, newly arrived and/or lacking in English skills.

So, realistically, in March this year, there were 50,000 jobs that could in theory go to some of the people on the Job Services books, which makes the ratio of job seekers to jobs in this sector about 13:1.  There will be others looking at the jobs and questions of where the jobs are and what are the hours and physical demands as well.

The sole parents need jobs that allow them to manage their time with children, those with lesser but significant disabilities may have limits on their physical or mental abilities and both will also suffer employer prejudices.  Older workers have problems getting jobs, which is why the government is offering bribes. Younger workers lack experience and often any confidence to try something new. All long-term unemployed have been forced  to chase jobs they cannot get and are discouraged and depressed. They do not present as keen and interested. Few will even make it to an interview.

These figures show why finding paid work will continue to be difficult for most people on Newstart. Some subgroups, such as sole parents, will find it particularly hard because they need to balance children’s needs against workplace pressures. To meet potential worker needs, employers need to be approached to change working conditions and prejudices. Better child care for school-age children also will help, but basically only some will find current types of jobs.

If the ALP is serious about its commitment to fairness, it needs to reconsider its welfare policies. The current directions cannot be described as traditional Labor policies, as they resemble hardline conservatism. The built-in punitive values are evident in policies such as income management, limiting income, pushing recipients into futile activities. When the data show that the jobs are not there, it is even more unintelligible.

Peter Fray

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