Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The apparent silliness of Headmaster Rudd's truancy plan

I have a post to complete, but Headmaster Rudd's plan to deny welfare recipients their benefits for a period - thirteen weeks has been mentioned - drew my attention because of its apparent silliness, as well as its implied cruelty.

Let's start with a few parameter stats.

Assume that we have a single mum totally dependant on welfare with a thirteen year old daughter, fifteen year old son. I have not been able to check the exact figures, but this family will be receiving per fortnight something like $348 in Family Tax Benefits plus $546 in parenting payments for a total of $894.

This is not a lot of money. If they are renting in the private market place the family will attract some Commonwealth Rent Assistance. Outside regional areas, this family probably cannot afford private rental.

Assume that they are paying $400 per fortnight for a three bedroom cottage. This will attract $126 in rent assistance. After rent, their fortnightly net income is $620 or $44 per day.

They may be in social housing. In this event, they are either not eligible for rent assistance or in NSW, Victoria and Queensland will have it included in rent.

Social housing applies income based rents. This family will pay 25% of income plus 15% of Family Tax Benefits, giving a fortnightly rental of $189. Now the family has a fortnightly net income after housing costs of $705 or $50 per day.

Think about it for a moment. This family has between $44 and $50 to spend per day, or between $15 and $17 per person. Not a lot, is it?

Assume that our fifteen year old son is difficult and is playing truant. Mum loses her income for thirteen weeks.

If they are renting privately they lose their house. If they are in social housing, their rent will drop to minimum, $5 per week in NSW. They will keep their house, but starve.

I don't think that this is good public policy. Am I wrong?


This one is obviously worrying me since I am still thinking about it.

Under questioning, Government ministers said that the proposed action was a last resort, something that would happen in a small number of cases where other things had failed. Further, the intent appears to be to trial the approach in a small number of locations.

Maybe if the proposal had been announced in this way in the first instance I might have had a lessened response. However, it was presented as a major initiative to address a major social problem - this is inconsistent with the last resort line.

In any event, it still strikes me as bad policy because, as described, it is such a blunt instrument.

The first thing to note is that the proposed withdrawal of benefits is a threat and then, if implemented, a punishment. This is different in kind from welfare quarantining.

I suppose one could argue that it is somewhat similar to the actions of the Howard Government in imposing requirements on job seekers. Failure to comply here meant loss of benefits. This is not actually re-assuring, because there is considerable evidence that the Howard Government approach created very considerable hardship in individual cases, including homelessness. It is also not clear that the approach delivered much in the way of benefits.

At least in the job seeker case, there was a clear nexus between the individual and the response. In the case we are talking about now, the punishment can affect the innocent as well as the guilty.

More broadly, we seem to be dealing with a measure generated by a specific problem in specific areas (the failure of Aboriginal parents in certain localities to send their children to school) that is then presented as a universal measure (the failure of certain parents across the country to send their children to school).

The two raise very different issues.

As with the Howard/Brough intervention, it is possible to argue that specific problems require targeted vertical responses. In a sense, this is policy by exception and should be judged in the context of the specific problem, as well as the broader implications of the action. Further, the costs of the response (individual as well as administrative) are self contained and can be seen and measured.

Things become very different if that specific vertical response is then generalised into a horizontal measure applying across the whole country. Now the key questions becomes to what extent are we dealing with a national problem, is this an appropriate response to that problem, what are the gains and costs?

These can be difficult questions to answer in a large complex national system. Just because a thing might work at a local level does not, of itself, make it suitable for national application.

Finishing, a key thing with any policy measure is to try to define the pre-conditions required for it to work, to deliver the desired results. I do not think that this has been done in this case.


Neil said...

It is plain silly, not apparently silly...

Bob Q said...

What Neil said.

Sadly, and for me unexpectedly, there seems to be gathering evidence of an inclination to shoot from the hip (which, if you know your history, has the effect of putting your opponent off, not actually hitting the target).

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you Neil, and thanks for your companion post on the issue - http://ninglundecember.wordpress.com/2008/08/27/punishing-parents-wont-stop-truancy-why-rudd-and-gillard-are-wrong/

Bob, your comment on the hip thing is absolutely right, at least as I see things.