By Bess Harrison
During May and June of this year, Equality Rights Alliance documented women’s experiences of income management in the Northern Territory. Their recently released report, aptly entitled Aboriginal Women’s Experience of Income Management in the Northern Territory, provides valuable insight into the complexity of issues arising from income management and the range of views and experiences of women affected by it.
Equality Rights Alliance (ERA) is led by the YWCA Australia and is made up of more than 50 organisations advocating for women’s equality. The Alliance has refrained from making recommendations in the report and does not have a policy position on income management. Rather, ERA has admirably shown genuine commitment to letting the experiences of women speak for themselves – “We wanted to close a gap in our understanding of their perception of the impact of the program on women’s daily lives, by asking the women for their views.”
A total of 180 women participated in surveys and a series of discussion groups. Of the women who participated, 96% identified as Aboriginal, 99% were over the age of 25 and 95% had owned a BasicsCard for more than 12 months. All but two participants were from the Alice Springs region. The sample also included a small number of women from Nepal, Burma and African nations who spoke of their experiences of income management as refugees.
The report is careful to point out its limits stating that, “This study is not intended to be an evaluation of the wider aspects of income management throughout the Northern Territory, but a limited qualitative study of selected urban accessible groups.”
While it is limited (like all research) this report will be particularly valuable for informing future research on income management and identifying issues that only emerge in the minutia of peoples everyday lives. It is a timely contribution of previously sidelined voices to the national debate on the government’s expansion of income management to selected areas around the country.
One of the most disturbing issues to emerge from the women’s stories is the interaction between domestic violence support provided by Centrelink and referral to compulsory income management. Centrelink offers a Crisis Payment to people who have had to leave their home due to domestic violence. Women’s services and domestic violence support services refer women to Centrelink for financial support of this kind. However, receipt of a Crisis Payment is also one of the triggers for referral to compulsory income management. In effect, right at the time when a woman would need the most flexible funds in order to pay for short term accommodation, a bond for new rental accommodation, travel costs, etc., at least 50% of her support payment is tied up in a BasicsCard that can only be used at certain outlets (mostly retail). Concerns were raised that some women were hesitant to access crisis assistance from Centrelink because of concerns they would then be referred for compulsory income management.
Unsurprisingly some women reported Kafkaesque scenarios arising from interactions between Centrelink income management protocols and other government agencies. One woman had her rent paid directly to NT Housing from her Centrelink payment. However, Centrelink was not paying rent by the due date. She then had to scramble together cash to pay NT Housing and avoid the consequences of being too far in arrears. This was made more difficult by the fact that most of her funds were tied up in her BasicsCard. This could be more of a problem for people in private rental, depending on the landlord.
BasicsCard exists because of an assumption that reducing the flexibility of peoples’ money will help them spend it on what the Government considers to be the ‘right’ things. However this reduced flexibility may also constitute barriers to effective financial management of an already inadequate income. A number of examples in the research reflected this. The one that stands out is women who prefer to shop at markets, op shops, and would be happy with secondhand furniture and appliances are forced to shop instead at Coles, Woolworths, Kmart, Target, Radio Rentals or to spend their limited cash even though they have credit available on their BasicsCard. Some stores that accepted BasicsCard would exempt the use of the card on sale items, effectively preventing “financially vulnerable” people from making the most of discounted goods. BasicsCard is not accepted at all service stations, which makes travel difficult. Some pharmacies don’t accept BasicsCard either which can limit access to prescription medicine. The inflexibility of the BasicsCard appears to add to the burden of domestic management. As women are more likely to carry out most of this labor, it is likely that income management disproportionately impacts women. These issues only emerge at the level of day-to-day life experience.
I would hazard a guess that many of us never have, and never will be, required to show the kind of financial management that is expected from women on income management programs. How would you juggle competing financial demands on an already meager income out of what amounts to two separate currencies and ways of spending? One refugee woman pointed out the absurdity of having one thousand dollars to spend on food that then goes off in the fridge and having no money for the kids to go on school excursions or participate in activities such as soccer.
While income management is no longer applied as a blanket requirement for everyone on Centrelink payments in the NT, it is still compulsory for certain people and involves a complex exemption process for others who remain on it despite their misgivings. While Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin refers to the 4,500 people in the NT who have voluntarily gone on income management because “it helps them manage their money better”, the ERA research indicates that potentially, many of these voluntary participants may have neglected to apply for exemptions they are entitled to for reasons other than the helpfulness of income management. Reasons given in the report include the complexity and indignity of the exemption process; the decision that the six monthly bonus payment was worth the hassle of income management; lack of knowledge about what other financial management assistance is available and not knowing exemptions exist.
A story that has stood out to me is that of a woman from Yuendemu. Police had recommended that she relocate children in her care to Adelaide for a number of weeks due to community safety concerns. She notified the school and organised extra work to make sure the children kept up. When she applied for an income management exemption she was told that the children’s absence from school was unauthorised and that she was ineligible for an exemption.
The indignity of BasicsCard was a major theme throughout the report. To impose income management on a compulsory basis translates into an offensive presumption of guilt and incapacity on the part of people who are already doing it tough. It might be easy for the Government to underestimate the gravity of something as amorphous as indignity but it is impossible for us to ignore and it has continuing long term ramifications. This policy worsens the social and financial divide in Australia. You can’t build a strong economy on the back of a fractured society.
Bess Harrison is the newly-appointed research officer the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia.