Derek Brody, Staff Writer
In an age of large welfare states and massive government entitlement programs, some countries are taking steps to increase accountability in the distribution of these benefits. Late last summer, the Australian government announced plans to randomly drug test welfare recipients in an effort to do just this, but this has been met with immediate pushback from those on the center-left who claim the program simply reinforces existing social and political power gaps. This has been a common proposal across the world from those who claim to have conservative political ideologies, supported by unfounded claims that these welfare recipients use their vouchers to purchase illicit substances. Minister for Social Services Christian Porter released a statement detailing the rationale behind the program, saying, “The aim of the policy is to help job seekers to receive the help they need to get on a path towards securing a job and building a better future for themselves and their families.”
The program, which took effect in January of this year, will begin by randomly selecting 5,000 people who receive welfare payments from the federal government. The government will perform urine, saliva, or hair tests on the randomly selected pool to search for traces of meth, ecstasy, heroin, or marijuana. If a recipient tests positive for one of the substances, the Australian government will convert 80% of their welfare payment to a “BasicsCard,” which is only eligible to be used for food, rent, or childcare. A second positive test will automatically trigger a medical visit and addiction counseling program for the recipient. If the recipient fails to engage in treatment at this point, their welfare payments could be stopped. This effort is being undertaken to reduce government social welfare spending, as well as a motivating factor to encourage low-income residents to re-enter the workforce.
After a two-year trial period, the program will be reevaluated by the federal government for effectiveness and cost-efficiency. As a part of the pilot program agreement, the government will only implement this procedure in three locations: Canterbury-Bankstown, Logan, and Mandurah. These areas were selected based on their relatively high levels of unemployment and drug use. Approximately 12,000 residents of Canterbury-Bankstown are currently receiving welfare payments, and the new program plans to test about 1,750 of them by next February.
Liberal Senator Eric Abetz utilized age-old rhetoric regarding welfare reform and fiscal responsibility in an attempt to promote the plan. Abetz touted the plan, saying, “I think most Australians are aware of some, not all, some welfare recipients that actually sadly use the welfare system as a hammock, as opposed to a safety net, and as a good, competent government looking after the welfare of those individuals as well as the taxpayers, it makes good sense that you look at policy options to encourage people into work, into self-reliance and relieve the burden on their fellow Australians.”
Randomly drug testing welfare recipients has not been widely adopted across the globe, but there are several examples of other governmental agencies carrying out similar programs. New Zealand implemented a similar program in 2015 with startling results. Armed with a $1 million budget, the country drug tested 8,000 welfare recipients. Only 22 tested positive, indicating the flawed logic behind the program itself. Likewise, the state of Florida also randomly drug tested their welfare recipients, and only 2.6 percent tested positive for any of the four substances. Recent estimates in the United States have found that about one in five welfare recipients had used illicit drugs in the past year, which makes drug use 50% more common in welfare households than the general population. The study went on to find, however, that less than 5% of welfare recipients met the diagnostic criteria for having a substance abuse problem, further providing evidence to refute many of the claims made by the Australian government.
The Australian Green party, which holds 1 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives and nine of the 76 seats in the Senate, came out in fierce opposition to the proposal. The Green Party is a left-leaning organization whose largest commitment is to environmental rights and protections. A release from the party stated, “the legislation completely ignores the advice and evidence from both medical professionals and social security experts. The Australian Greens are deeply concerned by the government’s repeated rejection of the expertise and evidence given by stakeholders in their continued pursuit of harsh cuts to income support.”
The Green Party went on to criticize the cost of the program, pointing to several similar attempts in the United States. A program in four American states over an 18-month period tested over 200,000 individuals at a cost of over $1 million. These tests went on to disqualify 847 recipients, equaling a cost of over $1,100 per disqualified individual. At this cost per disqualification, it is clear that programs similar to this are a poor use of public funds.
Likewise, the response by several Australian medical groups have clarified the negative consequences of this program. Australian Medical Association (AMA) President Michael Gannon released a statement voicing his displeasure, noting that, “The populist idea is that there are armies of drug-addled people bludging off the welfare system. But the reality is, we’re talking about some of the most vulnerable people in the community who need a hand up. These proposed measured will only serve to marginalize and stigmatize an already-impoverished group.” The negative response from medical professionals, policymakers, and private industry indicate the potentially negative ramifications of this program’s implementation.
Human Services Minister Alan Tudge responded to the criticism of the program in early August, noting that, “This is a trial in every sense of the word, where we want to try something new, evaluate it, and if it works then we might roll it out further. If it does not work then we adjust. That is how you do a trial. By the way, all medical advances are done on this basis, of trial and error. And if it is good for health policy, why isn’t it good for social policy to do it this way?” Mr. Tudge’s analogy, however, fails on numerous accounts. Clinical trials in the health field are traditionally carried out systematically and with the consent of patients, while this trial period will occur with little input from the public. Likewise, medical clinical trials are subject to strict oversight from grant funding programs, while a similar system of responsibility has not been established in this program.
The program has also received pushback from those in private industry, including a damning statement from Jobs Australia CEO David Thompson. In a statement from this August, Thompson noted that some may stop asking for welfare assistance altogether, “Simply because they feel that the whole process is really quite demeaning and humiliating.” He went on to state that many would turn to other measures to receive the financial backing they so desperately need. He noted that some may turn to charities for this assistance, while others may resort to crime or prostitution. Fiona McLeod, the president of the Law Council of Australia, reacted similarly to the news. She went on record saying, “What we don’t see here is evidence that this will be beneficial, and we don’t see a benefit that outweighs the imposition or the punitive effect on a certain group of people. It interferes with people’s liberty and it certainly interferes with our responsibility to protect those in our community who are not so well off.”
The round of criticism led to a response from Liberal backbencher Ben Morton, who advocated for the passage of this program. “I can’t believe there are organizations that are closing their mind to something that could work,” Mr. Morton said. “I think some of the policy officers in some of these peak bodies need to stop focusing on ideology.”
The program also includes a secondary provision, which introduces major changes to the compliance regime for welfare recipient jobseekers. By utilizing a demerit point-style system, the government claims it will save over $200 million. It also eliminates several pension payments programs, including those for individuals who are unable to lodge a full claim or those receiving bereavement allowance. This is done as a means of reducing government spending and cutting down on social welfare programs, a conservative ideological goal.
As the government readies itself to implement the program by the beginning of next year, it must continue to respond to the harsh criticism levied from all sides. Critics have raised several questions regarding the effectiveness, cost-efficiency, and morality of the program, and the Australian polity now has 24 months to answer those queries. Regardless, it will provide important and powerful context to worldwide drug policy in the future. After careful consideration of the responses of other policymakers and health experts, as well as the results of similar programs in the United States and New Zealand, it is increasingly clear that this program’s implementation is an assault on members of Australia’s lower class. Rather creating an honest system to increase accountability in the process of welfare distribution, Australia’s polity is instead attempting to widen the existing class divide and further punish those at the lowest rungs of its socio-economic ladder.