Sunday, September 20, 2009

Australia's welfare policies help the poor, not the lazy

Roughly speaking

AUSTRALIA'S unemployed are experiencing poverty at a far higher rate than the unemployed in other developed nations. A report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has found that, even before the downturn, 55 per cent of jobless households in Australia were living in ''relative poverty'', on less than half the average income. By contrast, the average rate of relative poverty for jobless households in OECD countries was just 37 per cent.

The report warned that, unlike those of other countries, the tax and transfer system in Australia was heavily geared towards helping working households, but was less successful at tackling entrenched poverty of jobless households. ''Australia's tax and transfer system - targeted towards low-income earners - reduces the risk of poverty among working households by three-quarters, but is less successful in tackling poverty in jobless households,'' the report said.

While more than half Australia's jobless households endure poverty, only 3 per cent of households with at least one person working were classified by the OECD as relatively poor.

Highlighting the topic as a looming budget problem for the Rudd Government, the report also suggested the miserly Newstart system had encouraged the unemployed to try to shift into the relatively generous disability support system. It said receipt of the disability pension had doubled since 1990, with the biggest growth among the working-age population.

The situation of Australia's unemployed will deteriorate further today when the Government's much-touted pension increase begins. The $32 a week increase for single age pensioners means they will now take home $335 a week, including income supplements. Newstart recipients will continue to survive on $227 a week - equivalent to just 68 per cent of the single pension, compared with about 75 per cent before the changes.

Australian Council of Social Service chief executive Clare Martin said the $108 weekly difference between the two payments was ''extraordinary'' at a time of rising unemployment and low rental affordability. She said it was clear the income support system needed to be overhauled as part of the tax system review being undertaken by Treasury secretary Ken Henry, with a single standard payment and add-on components for housing and disability. ''There should be a recognition that it takes a certain level of payment to actually survive on,'' Ms Martin said.

The Federal Government has argued that Newstart should not be compared to income support because it was designed as a temporary payment. Employment Minister Julia Gillard late last week acknowledged that past experience showed many people aged in their 40s and 50s who lose their foothold in the labour market never find employment again, suggesting they could be on Newstart for years until pension age.

The report said about 44 per cent of disability pensioners had previously been on unemployment benefits and only a small proportion ever return to work. And, of pensioners who return to work, within three years three-quarters have either retired or are no longer working.


Negligent State school: 8yo left behind on excursion -- many miles from home

SHE packed her violin, making sure it fitted snugly in its case after she finished her performance and waited for her classmates, teachers and bus to take her home. But the eight-year-old Warwick Central State School pupil sat alone crying on a Toowoomba park bench for a bus which had already left without her. “I was there by myself for about an hour,” the Year 4 pupil said yesterday.

Her mum Belinda Evans was “absolutely disgusted” when she learnt of the ordeal. “You drop your kids off to school and you think they'll be safe,” Mrs Evans said. “You don't think they'd be left behind - sobbing on a bench in Toowoomba - 40 minutes from home.”

The little girl was spotted by another Warwick Central mum who attended the Today's Youth in Music Education event on Thursday. “She recognised the Central uniform my daughter was wearing, saw her crying and alone and knew the bus had already left,” Mrs Evans said.

The Good Samaritan called Central to inform the school a little girl had been left behind and, while grateful for the woman's help, the forgotten pupil's father Brian was ropable. “The bus didn't come back (for her); a stranger drove my daughter home,” Mr Evans said. “I keep thinking 'what if?' What if that lady didn't find her?” Mrs Evans added. “When I got her back, I didn't want to let her go; let go of my baby. “Anyone could have got her, that's what scares me the most.”

The Evans' said the worst part about their daughter's ordeal was that the school was not transparent in their actions or in dealing with the situation. “They (Warwick Central SS) did not contact us (after the incident),” Mr Evans said. “There were 18 kids on the trip. They should've done a roll call or head count; don't they have procedures?”

Angry, the couple went to principal Trish Maskell for answers when their daughter was safely returned about 4pm. Unhappy with the response, Mr Evans contacted Education Queensland. According to the Evans', it will be a while before their daughter goes on another school excursion. “She has been transferred to another Warwick school next term and the first thing I asked them was if they've ever left a child behind,” Mr Evans said.

A Department of Education Queensland spokesperson yesterday confirmed they were investigating the incident at Central. “(The department) is treating the matter extremely seriously and considers it unacceptable that a student could be left behind,” the spokesperson said. “A large number of schools from across the region also took part (in the event); the department has offered its support and apologised to the student and her parents. “The Acting Executive Director Schools has been in contact with the family again (yesterday) to provide further support and an explanation of what happened. “(Warwick Central State School) is reviewing its processes around excursions and student rolls.”


Immigration not the only way to counter an ageing population

THE Rudd government should be wary about using high levels of immigration in coming decades as a means to counteract the decline in productivity resulting from an ageing population because more over-55s are staying on in their jobs, a population expert warns. Monash University demographer Bob Birrell said Treasury's new population estimate for Australia -- 35 million by 2050 -- was based on immigration levels of about 180,000 a year, a rate that may not be necessary to keep the economy running and will be difficult to provide for in terms of urban infrastructure and services.

"The government seems to have bought the argument that business in Australia needs a high amount of labour force growth to keep it going in the future. The rest of us are going to have to bear the consequences of that," Professor Birrell said yesterday. "The government doesn't seem prepared to explore how we need to make social adjustments; rather, they are relying on the prop of bringing in more people of younger ages to essentially put all the older people to bed."

In a speech yesterday to launch the new Australian Institute for Population Ageing Research at the University of NSW, Wayne Swan noted the previous estimate of Australia's future population contained in the last intergenerational report in 2007 -- 28.5 million by 2047 -- was likely to be well short of the mark. "Australia's population is projected to grow by 65per cent to reach over 35 million in 2049, up from around 21.5 million people now," Mr Swan said. "This ... is largely driven by a greater number of women of childbearing age, higher fertility rates and increased net overseas migration."

Mr Swan said while the number of people of working age would grow by 45 per cent over the next 40 years, those aged 65-84 would double and those 85 and older would increase by 4.5 times. "Population ageing will lead to slower economic growth ... and it will lead to increasing levels of Australian government spending per person. Together these factors will contribute to significant ongoing financial pressures," the Treasurer said.

Professor Birrell said research at his Centre for Population and Urban Research earlier this year showed older workers, those aged 55-plus, were tending to stay on in the workforce longer than anticipated. With sustained high levels of immigration added into the workforce mix, the employment prospects of younger Australians were being compromised.

Australian National University demographer Peter McDonald said the recent increase in the birthrate in Australia, up from 1.79 to 1.93 in the past two years, was encouraging. "The lower the birthrate, the more migrants you need," Professor McDonald said. "If we had birthrates like those in Germany or Italy we would need to look at greater numbers of migrants."


One country-school classroom to cost $850,000

More "stimulus money" waste

A 9m by 6m classroom will cost a small country school $850,000 under the federal school building program, even though for only $100,000 more, the local council built a library 10 times the size.

Jerilderie Public School applied to refurbish and extend its administration block under the Building the Education Revolution, which, after approval from the NSW Education Department, added a new stand-alone classroom.

But Parents and Citizens Association president Craig Knight said the project managers appointed by the department, Laing O'Rourke, had informed the school in southern NSW last week that the $850,000 grant would now be enough to build only one classroom.

Mr Knight said the school rejected the offer of a single classroom, saying the administration block, which would include a staff room, one classroom and school offices, was the priority. He said it was unbelievable that one small building could swallow most of the school's grant.

"There are local non-government schools around the district who are getting multiple classrooms, toilet blocks, kitchenettes and covered outdoor areas for their $850,000," he said.

Mr Knight said the local council built and fitted out a library, which opened in March, that covers about 500sqm, including landscaping, toilets and kitchen for $915,000. "Our admin building only has a kitchenette, not even the plumbing associated with toilets," he said.

Answering a question on the issue in parliament yesterday from the local member, Liberal MP for Farrer, Sussan Ley, Education Minister Julia Gillard said she would look into the matter.

"I would issue these words of caution: when matters have been raised by the opposition in the past, we have frequently found that things asserted as facts are nowhere near facts," she said. "We have also frequently found, when we have tried to follow matters up with members of the opposition, or at least some of them, that they are more interested in making a political point than they are in getting matters resolved for their local schools."

Ms Gillard then read to parliament an email from a rural principal, Tony Shaw of Glen Park Primary School in Victoria, lamenting the "unprecedented" attack by the opposition to "discredit" the BER, which he said "calls into question the high-quality education provided in rural schools in a condescending and arrogant manner".

In a letter addressed to Ms Gillard from another school and tabled in the Senate last night, Abbotsford Public School council questioned the cost of a BER proposal to demolish four of the school's classrooms and replace them with four new classrooms at a cost of $2.5m.

The letter said the school community had unsuccessfully sought cost breakdowns and was "bewildered why (the NSW Education Department) employs such practices and products that are quadruple the cost of what could be obtained in the free market".

The department was unavailable for comment last night.


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