Photo by Hangah Liong on Unsplash

Shame is a well-trodden theme in studies of life on social security payments. Attention to shame is part of a wider recognition that there is more to poverty than material deprivation. Poverty takes a broader toll by eroding self-worth and self-respect. In turn, welfare recipients find ways to cope with being shamed in order to recuperate their sense of self-worth. Examples might include withdrawing from social life and concealing reliance on welfare; distancing oneself from other ‘underserving’ recipients; rejecting personal blame by insisting on the unfairness of society; or upholding alternative markers of success like fairness or care.

We have each conducted research about life on welfare today, examining the increasingly harsh, punitive and conditional dimensions of social security delivery in contemporary Australia. Emma’s in-depth sociological research was undertaken in 2014-15 and concerned the pre-COVID welfare landscape in South West Sydney, a populous and multicultural urban setting. Eve conducted anthropological research in 2017-18 into the introduction of the Cashless Debit Card (CDC) — which quarantines welfare payments — to the small rural town of Ceduna, which lies on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain in the far west of South Australia. More recently, Eve has interviewed around 20 women around Australia subject to the welfare measure ParentsNext.

Across our research, shame emerges as a complex, multifaceted phenomenon. Our recent article explores the cultural, historical and geographic specificity of lived experiences of welfare shame. That is, we see shame as shaped by culture, history and place. We also understand shame as always in flux. Shame is not a fixed, stable thing—either present or absent. Shame is exposing, violating boundaries between the public and private. Yet shame also sharpens the boundary between one’s self and another. It is thus both corrosive and productive. Moreover, our research taught us that sources of shame are conditioned by the assumptions and commitments we hold, which shift across cultures, themselves dynamic. This point will become clearer when considering the marked muting of shame associated with the Cashless Debit Card that some Aboriginal people in Ceduna—but by no means all— conveyed to Eve.

Hasan’s shame in forced migration

First, consider the role of shame in Hasan’s life.* Emma interviewed Hasan while he was awaiting the decision of the Refugee Review Tribunal after his family’s initial application for asylum had been rejected. He was tormented by his sudden dependency on the Australian Government to secure his family’s future, uttering the words ‘asylum’ and ‘protection’ with disdain.

The high cost of living in Australia and the private lawyer fees for the review consumed most of the family’s resources and left them struggling. As an asylum seeker, Hasan was not eligible for social security. However, at the time, he could have applied for the Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) payment amounting to 89% of the unemployment benefit, which only recently rose to the second-lowest in the OECD. But Hasan refused to seek or accept any form of social support that wasn’t related to his asylum case. When Emma asked him if anyone had provided practical help in Australia, he flushed at the question’s exposure of his degraded situation and vehemently dismissed the possibility: ‘No. I don’t want Centrelink or any of this blah, blah […] In my life I have never begged anybody.’

Hasan signalled multiple reference points that made his dependency feel shameful. When he insisted he was not a beggar, he spoke to a country that brands asylum seeking as criminal and parasitic. Hasan’s refusal to accept help also referenced his former life in Pakistan, where he was deeply involved in the informal charitable activities associated with his Muslim sect. Hasan’s sense of himself had travelled with him from Pakistan: he didn’t recognise the person who couldn’t provide for his family and had to ask a foreign government for help. While Hasan’s shame was consuming in that first interview, it was not static. It swelled and receded over the course of the interview and shifted in the conversations and visits Emma had with him afterwards.

Monica’s shame in unemployment and addiction

Shame was also a strong theme of Emma’s interview with Monica, an Anglo-Australian single parent on the cusp of her 30s who had long relied on income support payments. When her child turned eight Monica was moved from the Parenting Payment to the unemployment payment, paid at an even lower rate and conditional on job search requirements. She was deeply ashamed of being a ‘dole bludger’ (her words) and addicted to marijuana, which she described as a ‘loser attitude’.

While Monica had not experienced the profound uprooting that Hasan had, her understanding of herself and her circumstances was also defined by multiple and competing cultural influences. These influences were evident in her gendered role as carer for her siblings; her sense of social responsibility; and her ambition to excel and find meaning in paid work. But the pride of being a good parent and pillar of the family wasn’t enough to soothe the shame of not fulfilling her ambitions in the sphere of paid work. Monica judged herself and others in her position harshly, holding her shame as affirmation of her conviction: ‘I have to get a job, I have to do better than this’.

Culturally conditioned response to the CDC

Finally, the shame associated with using the Cashless Debit Card consumed many of Eve’s interviewees, and was powerfully described. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people talked of feeling ‘targeted’ and ‘degraded’: the card was regarded an ‘insult’.

However, among numerous other Aboriginal interviewees, the suggestion of shame was shrugged off. Maude frowned and thought hard about whether or not the card was a source of shame. ‘Just usual, I suppose. Like the Medicare card and everybody uses that. Like that to me, you know, you’re not shame,’ she supplied. Maude is a Pitjantjatjara woman whose ancestral Country lies in northern South Australia. Pitjantjatjara-speakers have long been enmeshed in settler colonial economies and commodity exchange via dingo scalping, work on pastoral stations, and recent decades of work within the organisational sector. However, Eve learned that for some people no shame was attached to not being a wage earner, even when conditional welfare measures serve to heighten the distinction between a waged worker with full citizenship rights, and a welfare dependent person whose everyday lives are subject to paternalistic interventions. Other criteria make for a good life.

We set out to think through shame beyond its simple presence or absence in the lives of welfare recipients. The shame of welfare, whether acutely felt, redirected, rejected, or shrugged off is more complex than it might at first seem.


*All names of interviewees used here are pseudonyms.


This article has 5 comments

  1. Most Australians of an older generation would be ashamed, as would I.

    • Ms Charlie Sanders

      It’s important to remember that nobody ends up on welfare by choice, and, for the people who are still able to work, the effects of living so far below the Henderson Poverty Line – along with the punitive programmes in the “Mutual” Obligations and JobActive/DES systems – compound one’s problematic circumstances so as to make it harder and harder to find stable/secure, appropriate, safe, reasonably-paid work.

      We can’t help feeling shame, but we can remind ourselves (and others) that unemployment is a design feature of neoliberalism, not a bug!

  2. Well, it is clear that payroll tax and PAYG make it much harder to attain a decent standard of living and having different units for tax and social security does not help. Years ago I shocked Bettina Cass by pointing out that if my wife died and I had four kids I would be almost as well off financially quitting my fully taxed public service position, paying off the house with the life insurance going on the sole parent pension and preserving my super. I showed her the figures for her Social Secuity Review. Indirect taxes don’t help self sufficiency either.

    • Ms Charlie Sanders

      I’d add that superannuation is forced investment in the stock market, at a flat rate across all income brackets, and that this adversely affects people (mostly women, Blak, POCs, disabled/reduced capacity, older, LGBTQI+, intergenerational poverty, insecure housing, neurodivergent, and especially intersections of these) who are worst-off and cannot spare that 9% of their minimum wage income, whereas folks who earn lots don’t need to scrape every remaining cent together.

      Superannuation also drives down wages, because, although it was intended to be an additional contribution on top of wages/salaries, it predictably became part of the ‘package’ (Keating was warned that this would happen), and actual incomes (sans superannuation) are now lower as a result. This is especially the case in jobs that are already low-paid and insecure.

      Additionally, the existence of mandatory superannuation has been used to prevent adequate increases in the pension.

      The current ‘old age’ pension is $64.34 per day, which is roughly $23.18 per day less than the February 2022 Henderson Poverty Line. Some pensioners own their homes, so their housing costs are slightly less, although they have to pay council rates and all property upkeep, so it doesn’t save them as much as you’d think.

  3. Of course superannuation comes out of labour income -(just like FBT). That is why Treasury OECD comparison statistics trying to say Australia is a low taxed country are nonsense. We use compulsory super, third party and workers comp to do what other countries do through social security taxes. However, our system is at least more solvent that unfunded US or European social security schemes and super was meant to reduce reliance on the age pension, as well as disability pension. What is crazy is that we are taxing people to whom we are paying welfare benefits.

    A logical tax transfer system would say –

    1. If you are paying tax, you should be well enough off not to be receiving welfare

    2 If you are receiving welfare, you should not be paying tax.

    (You may, of course, be paying no tax and receiving no welfare.)

    Long tapered income tests create an irrational pattern of equivalent marginal tax rates.

    As for sectional interest, policy should be based on disinterested universals not sectional interests. Time and again, one sees sectional interest polices backfire in odd ways.

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