The Australian welfare system was designed to be a system of reciprocity. Working taxpayers financed services aimed at their families’ security and development. It was intended to be a form of security from which individuals and family collectives – communities – built strengths (personal and community capacity). As the individual flourished so too did the community. The feminist philosophy states ‘the personal is the political,” and it is. For some sectors of the community welfare has become a passive system whereby they receive economic assistance but have not been required to provide any form of reciprocation. This type of welfare creates dependency which benefits neither individual nor community.
Because my theme for this year’s A – Z Challenge is social justice in substance abuse I want to talk about a relatively new conversation; the one that goes along the lines of implementing random urinalysis screens (i.e.: drug testing) for everyone receiving a welfare payment.
It is true that many substance abusers do not want to change their behaviours, that is to say they have not realised the cost of their drugging and/or drinking: financial, economic and social costs to themselves, their families and the community. However, many more do.
I have the opinion that this proposed system is retributive (punishing the criminal act) rather than restorative (treating the health issue). Addiction is listed in the DSMIV (the bible of mental health symptoms) as a mental illness which means it has a set of symptoms along two axes of definition that deliver a verdict (label/diagnosis). From a counsellor working in the sector, and in deed any welfare worker, this is no different from being diagnosed with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder); schizophrenia or bi-polar yet we expect those with substance addictions to ‘pull their fingers out and get a job”. Having said that however, the reality is quite different as the label of ‘addiction’ appears to give society permission to regard these individuals with disdain, scorn and disgust.
What’s up people?
It’s a mental health diagnosis!
Get over it!
It’s a health issue not a criminal diagnosis.
It is difficult to see how this system will be effective because:
- Those with addictions have lived by their wits for a long time; manipulating the system will frustrate bureaucracy before it frustrates substance users
- Using drug screening as the only way to identify those with addictions is short-sighted
- Unless identification leads to treatment it must be seen as retribution not welfare
- It will increase the stigma experienced by this sector of the populace
Alternately, if the drug screen were to be used as part of process of establishing transparency from which followed treatment options if positive results were returned then it could very well be a good measure. After some years working with substance users it is my experience that no amount of coercion will provide a positive outcome if that person is not motivated to make changes.
“A well-designed welfare state can actually encourage people
to take chances with their jobs and be more, not less, open to changes.”
The present system of welfare seems a punitive, dehumanising and shaming process for those requiring support at times of vulnerability. There is sufficient literature to suggest the therapeutic intervention provided is less important than the therapeutic alliance between the substance user and the counsellor/clinician/therapist. As this is the case, public servants manning their kingdoms of power in welfare offices across the nation have a long way to go before they reach an average standard of interpersonal skills.
If part of the treatment is that the individual attends residential rehabilitation, then part of welfare should be the wherewithal to leave rehab knowing that they have the skills to work towards a life with some stability, the opportunity to enter the workforce and suitable accommodation.
These are my opinions and from where I sit, rather than sitting on the cutting edge of radical policy change to deal with ‘the undeserving’ taking up a place in the queue, the welfare system has a way to go before an appropriate pathway, from welfare to economic independence, is attained.