‘The Puppetry of Poverty’

(or how to pull yourself up by your own boot straps when someone else is pulling the strings)

A Paper written and presented by Sue Salthouse on behalf of Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) at the ‘Fair Go Going Gone? Public Policy and the Re-framing of Values’ Conference; QV Women’s Centre, 210 Lonsdale St, Melbourne; 4-5 November 2005. Copyright 2005.


Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge the ancestors of the Kulin nations and their people on whose land we stand today. When talking about values we know the guts have been ripped out of Reconciliation but when we get it back on the agenda, it will mean a sharing of customs – and that is why this acknowledgement is so important because it symbolises the beginning of this process.

I titled my talk ‘The Puppetry of Poverty’ because the current Welfare-to-Work proposals conjure up images of a marionette being manipulated by a set of master puppeteers.


a picture of a puppet.


It is 1 July 2006, and a happy welfare applicant (with some mobility disabilities) has just been placed on the Newstart Allowance��Income (2006) $10,962 pa

The stated aims of the Welfare-to-Work proposals are to reduce welfare dependency and increase the ability of people with disabilities to support themselves in their old age. When we look at the Welfare-to-Work proposals, we can see immediately the disjunction between the aims and the mechanism proposed to address them.

Welfare-to-Work is certainly a manifestation of the predominant neo conservative way of thinking, that ‘punishment ‘is ‘good for you’, and ‘going through hardship’ builds moral strength. The proposed policies set up a scenario where with determination your will pull yourself up by your own boot straps. The conundrum which puzzles us ‘the small-L’ liberals is that someone else is pulling all the strings – there is a long list of ‘so-called’ Mutual Obligations and a matching set of punishments for not meeting them.


a picture of a marionette.


The unfortunate reality: What Newstart Allowance does to people with disabilities

We can talk about the conservative quid pro quo postulated by Lakoff (2005) [1], that if the government gives away a benefit, such as a welfare payment, then it is obvious that they will require a reciprocal payment to square the moral balance sheet. We can see this in the form of work-for-the-dole schemes, and compulsory training courses in vacuo. Job seekers lives are directed with paternalistic thoroughness.

So a welfare support payment is one with many strings attached.

The WASP ethic encapsulates all the values that wealth shows how good and upright your actions have been, to have merited such blessings. Poverty is the antithesis of this.

If the moral viewpoint is that it is better to be well than sick, by extension it is better to be whole than disabled. This immediately puts 20% of the Australian population into that immoral cohort where they are NOT self reliant and use up valuable government resources through welfare support. Some have the audacity to be so disabled as to be unable to repay anything. Disability compounds and confuses the concept of moral rights and obligations in welfare.

So let us look at Disability a little more closely. The moral Right or neo conservatives also tap into people’s fears. Right up there with xenophobia is ‘differentaphobia’ and that’s where people with disabilities sit, and the more different you are the greater the phobia entrenched in the able-bodied psyche.

Our Judeo-Christian heritage still dominates out value set. Let’s travel back a few thousand years to the Old Testament. Disability is a curse from god – retribution exacted by god who is, after all, the ultimate father figure. [2]

In Leviticus, the Bible outlines the demonic model of disability. Back then, he banished the disabled from approaching the Lord. He had a pretty long list -: blind or lame, mutilated face, a limb too long, injured foot, injured hand, hunchback, defect in sight, itching disease or scabs (that’s Bible speak for gonorrhoea), or crushed testicles! For some people this demonic vision is not even in their subconscious. It’s right out in the open. Disability is a curse from god and it is safest to segregate those thus cursed and afflicted, lest the curse ‘jump ship like a plague rat’ to you.

The flip side of this biblical conditioning is even worse. The Messiah healed the sick and disabled, and restored those afflicted to being whole. The subliminal notion in this is that if you don’t fit the norm, you need to be re-formed to do so. A homogeneous world would be so comforting. Wouldn’t it be great if we could normalise everyone before they are born? There is a lot of current rhetoric justifying screening the ovum and the sperm before they even ‘get it together’ so to speak; there is more rhetoric around increasing foetal screening to detect disability in utero; post partum there is the desire to medicate into compliance those who manifest behavioural traits which do not fit the ‘norm’. With such normalisations in place, we can kiss goodbye to the Steven Hawkins and the Einsteins or this world. My terror rises when I contemplate just who is concocting the definition of normal – is it George Bush or John Howard or Tony Abbott or Peter Costello or Brendan Nelson?

There is a third worrying biblical interpretation of God’s purpose in choosing some of his flock to be disabled as a reminder to the able bodied to ‘count their blessings’. Personally, I am not sitting here in a wheelchair just to make you feel better, or for you to congratulate me afterwards as to ‘how marvellously I am doing’.

So Australia’s predominantly Judeo-Christian background sets a subconscious agenda for conceptualising disability. People with disabilities are the eternal children. But we are the naughty kids in the family, who need to be ‘sent to our rooms’ and kept out of the way.

Current thinking about disability is little different from that at the start of the Industrial Revolution, when tolerance for people with disability plummeted. Being unproductive, they became a burden on society, and were locked out both figuratively and literally. “Paupers” – those disabled and unable to work were the ‘deserving poor’. Asylums housed the ‘lunatics’ (the mentally ill) and there were institutes for ‘idiots’ (those with intellectual disability). The undeserving “poor” were the able bodied. They were confined in the worst housing to discourage them from reliance on the public purse. Sound familiar? This punitive approach to poverty has been juggled ingeniously in legislation and policy ever since. Whether ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’ both groups were, and are, still POOR.

In Australia, built from an imported population of social misfits and miscreants – government has always been the major provider of social supports. I suppose we could argue positively for the current Welfare-to-Work and Industrial Relations (IR) ‘reforms’ in that they are eliminating the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor – now we are all in the same basket – a bunch of dole-bludging idlers with Mediterranean back, determined to drain the public purse.

In fact the current Welfare-to-Work situation is not new. Commonwealth Invalid Pensions were introduced in 1908. Eligibility was based on medical definitions and a measure of the person’s ability to work! That has the same familiar ring to it. The assessment was harsh and punitive. People with disability contributed nothing to the State, and therefore the State owed them nothing. In Australia, changes in this attitude did not occur until after WWII. The disabled returning heroes, could not be ostracised and needed rehabilitation to re-integrate them into society.

Once again, Mutual Obligation is not new. It was a term coined by the Menzies Government, but it had benevolent connotations emphasising the need to preserve the self respect of the individual whilst assisting them to find work. But there was a sub-text in that it would lessen their dependence on welfare. From 1 July 2006, the ‘Mutual’ part will be a bit redundant, whilst the ‘Obligation’ is augmented as a means of monitoring how well you earn the pittance bestowed on you as a Welfare Recipient.

There have never been brilliant times for people with disabilities, but there have been better times. When the Disability Rights movement began in the 60’s and early 70’s, government attitudes and actions were at their most positive.

“Nothing about us without us” became the mantra, and the Social model of disability was born. The Disability Services Act (DSA) (86) and Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) (92) gave legal backup. The rhetoric changed – mongol, idiot, lunatic, handicapped, cretin, moron, deaf and dumb disappeared and turned into the ‘disabled’ overnight. But the reality for people with disabilities did not really change at all.

Deinstitutionalisation began in the mid-80’s. Disillusionment with it began at about the same time but is on a crescendo at the moment, with Cummins and Lau (2003) [3] from Deakin University leading world discussion on the fallacy of ‘inclusion’ as practised in Australia. We know the legacy of deinstitutionalisation through the statistics of the people with intellectual disabilities and mental health problems who are the homeless and who populate our prisons.

The current Welfare-to-Work proposals fit the neo conservative paradigms perfectly. People with disabilities are malingering at home on a lucrative Disability Support Pension (DSP) which gives them an annual income of $13,000, boosted with concessions on utilities, pharmaceuticals and health care. Such largesse does not help develop self reliance or self discipline. Although this level of income does foster frugality and self denial, they are not sufficient virtue to ‘earn’ the handouts. The obvious moral solution is to provide a negative, punitive incentive to stop us lazing around by the pool and get us into the workforce.

The government’s alarm about the ‘explosion’ of numbers on the DSP, and its insinuation that this is due to hypothetical disabilities, is largely unfounded. The population is ageing, and the incidence of disability increases with age. It is true that since 1982 the numbers on the DSP have been increasing. [4] In addition to the ageing population, at that time the Invalid Pension and the Sheltered Employment Allowance were abolished with their recipients being transferred to the DSP. Most of the rest of the increase is due to people transferring from other allowances, such as Newstart Allowance (NSA). Another factor has been the raising of the retirement age for women.

The ‘incentive’ to coax people with disabilities back into the workforce by drastically cutting their allowance is dangerous.

Let’s look a little at what is proposed. There are many differences between the DSP and the NSA in eligibility conditions, tax free zones, etc. At base level, the DSP pays $254 per week whilst the NSA pays $208. This is a $46/20% dollar difference. Those on the NSA who work at the basic wage of $12.54 per hour for 15 hours per week will earn $191 of which they will be taxed $111, leaving them with $80, or $5 per hour. However, their 15 hours work gives them only $34 per week more than their DSP counterpart – effectively reducing their hourly pay rate to $2.27. Their disposable income will be $288 pw or just under $15,000 per annum. All disability supports, except the Health Care Card, cut out when their gross income is about $31,000.

A plethora of other differences reduces their disposable incomes even more so that when they are earning about $200 per week, their effective marginal tax rate is 75%. We need not be surprised at the simultaneous push to reduce the tax rates of the rich from 47% to 30%.

The following tables are from the NATSEM [5] research on the distributional impacts of Welfare-to-Work changes on income for people with disabilities.

Table 1: Summary of the Newstart Allowance and Disability Support Pension Payments for Single Person
Aged 21 to 60, 2006-07 [a]


a table which shows a Summary of the Newstart Allowance and Disability Support Pension Payments for Single Person Aged 21 to 60, 2006-07.

[a] These are the estimated averaged payment rates and thresholds that will apply in 2006-07. The actual payment rates vary at various points throughout the financial year, in line with indexation arrangements. All figures rounded to nearest whole dollar. Both NSA/YA with disabilities and DSP recipients will receive the Pensioner Concession Card, Pharmaceutical Allowance (PA) and Telephone Allowance. NSA/YA recipients with disabilities who are unable to use public transport to undertake job search and take up employment will be able to receive Mobility Allowance of $50 a week. DSP recipients who cannot use public transport and are undertaking sufficient paid or voluntary work or vocational training or job search activities also receive $50 a week in Mobility Allowance. Mobility Allowance is not income or asset tested.

[b] This includes $2.90 a week of PA.

[c] This includes the effect of the $2.90 a week of PA.

(Source: Specially created version of STINMOD/05A)

Table 2: Impact of proposed new system on disposable incomes and EMTRs of single disabled people with
various levels of private income, 2006-07


a table which shows the impact of the proposed new system on disposable incomes and EMTRs of single disabled people with various levels of private income, 2006-07. Note: Averaged 2006-07 payment levels have been used. All dollar figures rounded to nearest dollar. All EMTRs rounded to nearest one per cent. Note that we have been unable to simulate the receipt by single disabled Newstart Allowees of PA within the time frame allowed for this project. PA has a particularly complicated income test and is also non-taxable. To make a fair comparison between the current and proposed systems, we have excluded PA from the calculations in both the current and proposed new world. However, this exclusion makes little difference, as the payment is only worth $2.90 a week and is received by disabled people in both the current and proposed new systems if they are in receipt of income support. Thus, the difference between the two systems is in most cases not affected by this exclusion.

(Source: Specially created version of STINMOD/05A)

The government has recently announced that when people with disabilities are using the Job Network system rather than Open Employment Services (euphemism for Disability Employment Service); the Job Network will be paid a bonus on $1000 for placing a person with disabilities in a job for 3 months. During that time, the after tax earnings of that person will be $960. I raise an eyebrow at the irony of that, especially since it confirms that the government is aware that it is difficult to find employment positions for people with disabilities.

For people with disabilities, the NSA has been enhanced to some degree. The government has realised that many people with disabilities are unable to use public transport and have increased the Mobility Allowance by $15 to a total of $50 per week. Most states also have a taxi subsidy system which gives such people a 50% reduction in their fare. Using both these concessions, the break-even distance such a person can travel from home to a workplace is about 4.5 km. After that the cost of getting to and from work can easily erode most of your salary.

Now I would like to look at the practicalities of working for people with disabilities. First of all there are many restrictions on the types of jobs you can do – according to the types and degree of disabilities with which you live. These restrictions include:

  • inaccessible workplaces: no lifts, no accessible toilet, no access to photocopier – no can take job;
  • travel costs: exorbitant if using taxi; extreme if restricted to using own car, high if using public transport;
  • participation costs: wheelchair tyres, repairs, other equipment/aids;
  • energy costs: cannot work and do housework, and prepare meal – have to employ cleaner and buy takeaways;
  • time restrictions: work ready takes 2 hours – every one of my days is 21/2 hours longer than yours;
  • dietary requirements: can’t just buy a take-away;
  • home support worker/carer: timing, availability and costs – carer arrives late, you get to work late, you get sacked;
  • ‘intervention’ (workplace support worker) availability: often not available, and often the employee has to meet that cost, even in government departments;
  • flexible hours: – for fluctuating wellbeing, for doctor, therapy, specialists appointments.


a picture showing an elevator with a sign next to it saying 'Disabled Lift: For access please see reception upstairs'.


Job Choice Restrictions

Let’s look at the incomes of people with disabilities. The ABS, 2003 Survey of Disability Ageing and Carers shows that 52% of people with disabilities live in households with the lowest 3 quintiles of household incomes. Their median gross personal income per week is $255 compared to $501 for the able-bodied population. The picture for women with disabilities is considerably worse than that for men with disabilities, but I will not go into those details here.

What models can we propose to alter this picture? The ‘poor you will always have with you’ once more to quote the bible. Government policy is making darn sure that this remains the case. Despite those who work to medically eliminate disability, I believe that we, too, will always be with you.


a cartoon strip.


Those who have disabilities, or have worked with people with disabilities, or who make the legislation about disabilities, know that disability policies have changed over the years, and that the rhetoric has changed, but the outcomes have changed very little. In reshaping a new framework of values – I look to you all for inspired input.


a cartoon strip.


‘This town ain’t accessible enough for both of us!!!’

Appendix – Human Rights and Various Quotes

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neigbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory or farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning here, they have little meaning anywhere.

Rights such as access to education, adequate health care, employment, due process before the law, freedom of movement and equality before the law target the very freedoms that an individual needs to be able to live with dignity. They are precious and they are inherent and should not be given merely at the benevolence of government.

The right to freedom from forced work, the right to take part in public life, rights to education and work and rights to a fair trial are fundamental human rights that have not been protected and the failure to do so has impacted on Indigenous people the most.

(Behrendt, L 2005, edited version of a speech given at Sydney Town Hall on 5 October 2005, as part of the launch of New Matilda’s Human Rights Act Campaign. Behrendt is Professor of Law and Indigenous Studies and Director of the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney, and is also the Director of Ngiya.)

I’m not sure I follow you on this essay. I don’t know anyone who blames the poor for being poor. People like me may blame it on various government programs that enable, and encourage, the poor to remain poor, but not on the poor themselves. I know from experience that none of the government programs that exist are designed to help people to do better. They are designed to keep people in whatever condition they are in. That is a simple, sad fact.


Top 5% of households have 60% of wealth – (Hugh Mc Kay)

“… if s.h.i.t ever becomes valuable, the poor will be born without a.r.s.e.h.o.l.e.s.”

(Mr Capois Death, Gould’s Book of Fish; Richard Flanagan)


[1] Lakoff, G(2005) Metaphor, Morality and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives have Left Liberals in the Dust abbr from Moral Politics, Social Research, Vol 62, no.2 (summer 1995)

[2] Gardner, G (2001) Rich in Rhetoric – Poor on Promise: Analysis of Disability Policy to the end of the 20th Century Thesis submitted for the degree of Masters of Social Science (Social Policy & Welfare), Charles Deakin Univeristy

[3] Cummins, R & Lau, D, 2003 Community integration or Community Exposure? A review and discussion in relation to people with intellectual disability, Journal of Applied Research into Intellectual Disabilities, 2003, 16 145-157

[4] JobAble (June 2003) In June 2003 there were 673l 334 people on DSP , accessed online at http://www.jobable.gov.au/DSP Report/2003/overview.asp

[5] Harding, A (2005) Distributional Impacts of the Welfare to Work Reforms on People with Disabilities in Australia