I’ve seen what happens when the poorest among us are backed into a corner. The sort of welfare cuts proposed in the Budget will create conditions conducive to criminal activity, writes Greg Barns.
The Abbott Government’s first Budget is unashamedly designed to deliver social and economic change in Australia.
One of the consequences, however, is likely to be an increase in crime. Crimes such as theft, low level drug selling, driving without a licence, burglaries, robberies and family violence generally increase when the welfare rolls are slashed.
From July 1 individuals under the age of 30 will have to wait six months before they can access unemployment benefits. And young people will be kept on the Youth Allowance up until the age of 25.
Then there are co-payments for visits to the doctor, albeit capped at 10 visits in some cases.
As a lawyer who has acted for many people in the criminal justice and child welfare systems, anecdotally I can say that, as night follows day, the assertion about an increase in crime will be borne out.
Take a young man or woman who is sacked from their part-time casual job and who has no comfortable middle class family to support them. This individual is already likely to have debts, and may have to support a child or children.
They are likely to be behind on their rent. Forcing that person into a position where they go from earning say $250 a week for their casual job to nothing, literally overnight, is devastating.
The mental health pressure on an individual in that setting is enormous to say the least. That individual needs quick money – a small drug deal would be handy. And they are offered a day’s work but have lost their licence previously. Why not hop in the car and take the risk?
This scenario is one that I have seen replicated over the years in Tasmania and Victoria. As is the fact that family violence increases when the financial pressure on individuals is unsustainable. Resorting to drink and drugs as antidotes can lead to domestic violence.
Last week I saw, for the umpteenth time, two young people dealt with by a court for stealing a tray of meat in one case and baby nappies in another. The background of these individuals was one of dire poverty, unemployment and a sheer lack of capacity to afford food for themselves.
One needs to be careful not to suggest what is often implied by those who support savage welfare cuts – that the poor are idle and disposed towards earning an easy dollar through criminal activity. That assertion is simply wrong.
The reality is more one of “there but the grace of God go I”.
The data bears out the fact that the sort of welfare cuts proposed by the Abbott Government in relation to young people will create conditions conducive to criminal activity.
Swingeing welfare cuts made by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government in the UK over the past three years has seen crime levels jump in some areas.
On November 10 last year Derbyshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Charles told the BBC about a 3 per cent increase in crimes compared with the same period in 2012.
Mr Charles revealed that shoplifting, theft from vehicles and non-domestic burglaries have increased in areas where welfare cuts hit hardest.
“What we’re finding now predominantly in areas of higher deprivation, with the benefit cuts that the government have inflicted on people who are not in work and are claiming benefits etc, crime is starting to go up,” Charles said.
On October 29 last year another senior UK police officer drew attention to a possible link between welfare cuts and crime. Deputy Chief Constable David Zinzan told the Plymouth Herald that nationally “shoplifting has increased in 34 out of 43 forces” and that anecdotally, he is “being told we are seeing an increase in shoplifting, not of high value goods, but basic necessities – food, nappies and baby milk – that may or may not be linked to the reforms that have taken place.”
A paper by UK researchers Will Jennings, Stephen Farrall and Shaun Bevan and published in 2012 in the International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice examined property crimes trends from 1961 to 2006.
The authors found that the surge in property crime in the UK in the 1980s to its high point between 1991-1995 was directly linked to policies that squeezed welfare recipients.
They note, rather presciently given the current Australian context:
“(as) government enacts fiscal or monetary policies designed to adjust macroeconomic outcomes, increasing or reducing national levels of unemployment, income inequality, inflation and economic growth, this impacts on the overall degree of law-breaking and victimisation in society.”
Arguing that the Abbott Government’s welfare changes are too harsh and will lead to an increase in certain types of crime as a consequence should not be taken to be an endorsement of long-term welfare dependency.
The latter is also linked with crime in a number of studies. But what is wrong with the announcements by Treasurer Joe Hockey is that no thought seems to have gone into the considerable social cost of suddenly shifting marginalised people into a situation where their already knife-edge financial and social setting is simply tipped over onto the dark side.