Does new evidence from NT women undermine supposed benefits of income management?

The stated intentions of the income management program, as part of the Northern Territory Emergency Response and the more recent revived program, were clearly aimed at better family functioning. Some surveys and statistics are quoted by the government to support the program and its various extensions but these give no statistically valid indicators  of  recipient benefits. The minister, Jenny Macklin, and others therefore often claim, as the justification for the programs, that many women in the NT have told them they want to retain the program and it does good.

Now a new research report, which has sought the views of more than 180 women in the NT, raises questions about income management’s level of support or perceptions of benefit. The survey was undertaken by a Canberra-based alliance of women’s groups, funded by the government, who ran a series of focus groups, interviews and surveys with women in Alice Springs and Darwin. This collected qualitative and quantitative data on how they felt about income management.

The questions and discussion covered their feelings about using the BasicsCard and the effects it had had on their sense of well-being, safety and purchasing. The results showed most of the respondents felt they received no benefits from using the BasicsCard that controlled half their spending money. In fact, many detailed negative effects on their ability to purchase what they needed and on the way they felt when  using the card.

There was a minority of women who felt comfortable with having and using the card. These saw some benefits in the program, and obviously agree with those the minister always quotes, but the much higher levels of distress and concern described by other respondents suggests that the program could be worse than neutral in it effects.  The following data from the survey suggests the levels of negative responses from this group could be widely reflected in other local women. The responses suggest that rather than  building  confidence and self-control in supposedly vulnerable and disordered parents, the net effects could reduce parental competence.

While most of the respondents were Aboriginal, some were African and a few were white. The bulk were sole parents, followed by age pensioners, who will often be caring for grandchildren, This is the target group of carers of children who were identified as the main target in the original emergency program, designed to protect children, and again in the current push to ensure children get to schools.

The report, Women’s Experience of Income Management in the Northern Territory is careful to state it is reporting on the views of the 180 women on income management in Alice Springs and Darwin. However, the responses and survey data cast serious doubts on the utility of the program and suggest it neither meets the government’s intended aims of making people safer.

Most women said the quarantining of their income had had little or no effect on what they bought, and said the card added to the difficulties and costs of paying for goods and services. Very significantly, nearly three quarters of women said they do not feel safer because of the card. As this was one of the aims, it seems to have failed, as there is also no independent evidence that they are in any way safer. While some women report seeing less fighting since the introduction of Income Management, others report seeing more petty crime to obtain cash.  The report’s summary described their feelings thus:

The discomfort many report about being seen to use the card is also a matter of concern. The loss of a sense of respect and dignity is damaging to women, and can impact on their capacity to care for others.” And later it said: “The perception of the majority of women was that Centrelink and others in their community do not respect them, and consider them to be not competent with money or as parents.”

The views of this sample of respondents are significant, as the number involved is much larger than the other surveys that the government uses to support its decisions. This study covers the New Income Management program, though most of the respondents had been on the program for more than 12 months. This version included an exemptions possibility and excluded age pensioners from the compulsory version. These changes were supposed to improve its acceptability but this does not seem to be working.

Interestingly, age pensioners are most likely to want to stay on the program, which suggests that a voluntary program would work. Of the 20% who answered “I am happy with the BasicsCard and want to keep using it as it is now”, most were age pensioners. However, most of the 79% who chose “I do not like using the BasicsCard and want to stop using it now”, were on parenting payments.

Re exemptions, 90% thought they would be too hard to get. Their later responses on Centrelink suggest relationship problem with 85% choosing  the response “I do not feel respected when I talk to Centrelink”, and only 14% choosing “I feel respected when I talk to Centrelink”. This lack of trust emerges again later with 86% choosing “I do not want to tell Centrelink if I have problems” with only 14% said “I feel safe talking to Centrelink if I need help”.

The final paired responses in the survey covered the stated original purpose of income management i.e. increasing capacities to look after their families. Of the 163 respondents who answered, 76% chose “BasicsCard does not make it easier to look after my family”. Only 24% said “BasicsCard helps me look after my family better”. And they could be covered by a voluntary program!

The costs of delivery for this program are substantial, estimated administrative costs are about $80 per week per person. The last budget announced another five areas including Bankstown (NSW), Shepparton (Victoria) and Logan (Queensland) to have a version of income management by July next year. Why? One would expect some serious evidence of its benefits before it is further extended.

However, as suggested in the finance department’s report, this expensive program lacks evidence of benefit and justification and, at least,  should not be further extended.