Are drugs or poor health the largest barrier to getting off welfare?

Matt Woodley

9/09/2019 4:26:00 PM

Federal Government plans to drug test welfare recipients and expand the use of cashless cards come as a new report links good health with the ability to find and keep work.

Scott Morrison, Anne Ruston, drug test
The Federal Government has described its approach to welfare as ‘compassionate conservative’.

Under the Federal Government’s self-described ‘compassionate conservative’ welfare approach, around 5000 recipients of Newstart or Youth Allowance could soon undergo mandatory drug testing as part of a two-year trial.
The same plan could also see the expansion of cashless debit cards, which restrict 80% of the unemployment and other benefits received by holders as a way to prevent the money being spent on drugs and gambling.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Fairfax the program – which is currently used by around 15,000 Australians, has been successful ‘on each and every occasion’ it has been used.
‘Losing all your money to gambling means you can’t put food on your table for your kids … this is just looking at a real situation and being honest about it,’ he said.
‘The key to its success in these communities has been that the communities themselves have been the ones that have decided to proceed with it.’
However, reports on the success of the current trials – in Ceduna, East Kimberly, Bundaberg and Hervey Bay – have been mixed. Some participants have reported a reduction in drug use, gambling and alcohol consumption, while others have struggled with increased stigma and described it as a ‘as a punitive and unfair intervention’.
A new Monash University report has also cast doubt on whether drug and alcohol dependency are the main drivers behind unemployment, instead suggesting health concerns are a primary factor.
It found Newstart recipients are nearly seven times as likely to describe their own health as ‘poor’ than people who are employed, while they are also significantly more likely to have accessed health services provided by social workers, psychologists, counsellors, nurses, and pharmacists, and less likely to have visited a dentist, chiropractor, osteopath, or physiotherapist.
‘Poor health is a barrier to work. There is substantial global evidence of the link between health and the ability to find and maintain work,’ the report states.
‘Actions to promote health in DSP [Disability Support Pension] and NSA [Newstart Allowance] recipients will support improvements in the ability of people receiving these benefits to participate in job finding and employment.
‘The findings of this study, when combined with prior evidence, suggest that an opportunity to improve the employment outcomes of people receiving the DSP and NSA is to focus on health improvement and disability reduction.’

Cashless debit cards restrict 80% of unemployment and other benefits received by holders as a way to prevent the money being spent on drugs and gambling. (Image: Australian Government Department of Social Services) 

Mandatory drug testing
The other aspect of the Federal Government’s initiative, a proposed trial of drug testing Newstart and Youth Allowance recipients, has also attracted criticism from the Opposition and health experts.
According to the proposed bill, welfare recipients who test positive would be placed on ‘income management’ for up to two years, which would see 80% of their welfare payment deposited into a cashless debit card.
Should the person test positive for a second time, they would be referred to a medical professional for an assessment of their circumstances in order to identify treatment options – including rehabilitation – supported by the creation of a $10 million Treatment Fund.
The Government has said the trial, which would be established in Logan (QLD), Canterbury-Bankstown (NSW) and Mandurah (WA), is different to a similar proposal floated in 2017, insofar as it is primarily designed to identify and assist people with drug issues.
‘People on welfare who take drugs are denying themselves the best opportunity to take advantage of the jobs we are creating,’ Social Services Minister Anne Ruston said.
‘The Morrison Government is trialling reforms [to] the welfare system to ensure that we can identify and encourage people with substance abuse issues to get treatment, rehabilitate and make them job ready.’
However, GP and addiction medicine specialist Dr Paul Grinzi told newsGP the new bill may still worsen outcomes in the longer term.
‘The Minister fails to understand that living with an addiction brings about issues of blame, stigma and shame,’ he said.
‘Drug testing these vulnerable members of our community is only going to perpetuating these issues, not “assist” in any sort of long-term recovery.
‘Policies to decrease the stigma and blame around addiction would be a better approach than this proposed drug testing policy.’
Other groups, including the Australian Injecting and Illicit Drug Users League (AIVL), Anglicare Australia, and the Australian Council of Social Service (ACSS) have also condemned the move.
Part of the Government’s justification for the policy is to identify people struggling with drug addiction; however, AIVL Chief Executive Melanie Walker believes this is a futile pursuit given there is already inadequate access to drug treatment services for those in need.
‘There is substantial unmet demand within the AOD [alcohol and other drug] treatment sector across Australia, with an estimated 200,000–500,000 Australians each year unable to access treatment,’ she said.
‘Despite additional investment into drug support services in these [proposed] areas, AIVL is concerned that this will not be enough to adequately enhance system capacity and will displace those who voluntarily seek support for their drug use.
‘In addition to being abusive and counter-productive, this trial is proposed without evidence of widespread drug use amongst people receiving income support or any indication that punitive compliance practices work.’
Labor and the Greens are also opposed, which means the Government requires support from at least four of the six crossbench senators to pass the legislation through the Upper House.
The 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey found unemployed people were more than three times as likely to use methamphetamines and 1.5 times more likely to use cannabis than those with jobs.
It is expected the legislation will be introduced in the Lower House this week.

addiction medicine drug use welfare

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Dr Evan Wayne Ackermann   10/09/2019 7:16:53 AM

Are people with substance use disorders really "vulnerable" members of society?

Graeme Banks   10/09/2019 2:42:04 PM

This topic is a no brainer.
Can’t Canberra tackle the real problems, like water for the Murray Darling Basin and the crippling cost of electricity?

Natasha Payne   15/09/2019 9:45:38 PM

The matter with most drug users is mental illness! The government needs to ensure there is a better faster system to help these people/drug users when they ask for help. Believe me, most of them don’t love their life! Ignorant people who have no understanding of addiction or mental illness should not be allowed to make rules about these things!