No. 14

Conscript the unemployed young into education

STONE the crows! Can anybody explain why everybody accepts Australia needs to import labour to meet skill shortages while hundreds of thousands of locals aren’t training or working?

This is less an argument about immigration or population as it is about the failure of the welfare system.

Millions of Australians now live in families where working is less unusual than unknown, where they expect the government to pay them to do sod all.

In 1978, 13 per cent of working age Australians were on income support, now it’s 17 per cent and more of them are on a disability pension or carer benefits (which pays more) than on unemployment.

It is hard to imagine anybody subsists on welfare by choice but it is impossible to believe all these people are incapable of work of any kind. The problem is many of them have lost connection with the workforce and lack the skills the economy needs.

As things stand, hundreds of thousands of people on welfare are all but unemployable now and will stay that way no matter how fast demand for labour grows.

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that we training another generation of the underclass. Around 20 per cent of people between 15 and 24 are not working or studying full time and if they are in the labour force at all it is in going-nowhere casual work.

And whatever the size and shape of labour shortages, as the baby boomers retire it is a racing certainty that unskilled workers with a marginal attachment to the labour market will not pick up their jobs.

This is good for aspiring immigrants but terrible for the taxpayer who will stay stuck with an unnecessary welfare bill. And it will consign another generation of Australians to a life of indolence and irrelevance.

But not if we follow Jenny Macklin’s lead. The indigenous affairs and welfare minister plans a national roll out of a Howard Government initiative which restricted what welfare recipients in the Northern Territory can spend their welfare payments on.

She wants to ensure people with children in specified areas spend their benefits on food and clothing rather than drink and drugs.

Obviously this upsets the welfare lobby, which holds welfare is a right to be used by recipients however they choose. But it will mean children in dysfunctional families get fed.

And it establishes the idea that the state can enforce standards of behaviour in return for paying welfare.

It is an idea that can and should apply to young people on welfare, linking payments to their attending education and training courses and staying in them until they are literate and numerate, demonstrate a determination to get a job and have skills that mean they have a chance of holding one.

This would also impose impositions on the state. Government has no right to conscript young people into wet wastes of time (community arts courses and the like) designed to do nothing more than keep them off the streets. They would need to learn the basic skills many missed at school and then be trained in trades and professions the economy will need in the future.

Forcing the recalcitrant young to acquire skills would be expensive and not much fun for the TAFE teachers who would take on the training. And it undoubtedly denies alienated adolescents their right to rot in indolence at the taxpayers’ expense.

So what? To consign hundreds of thousands of Australians to the scrap heap at the start of their lives is much worse.

Compelling people to acquire skills makes more sense than demanding they search for work they are unequipped to undertake. And it makes more sense than just giving them a fortnightly payment to shut them up.

The electoral consequences of conscripting other welfare recipients (disability support pensioners and single parents) into courses make it all but impossible to apply the idea more broadly. Electorates with large numbers of single parents swung against the Howard Government at the last election in response to its tightening of the work test that applied to them.

But it could work with the young, if only because they are politically disengaged and hopefully not habituated to poverty and powerlessness.

Nor is this a welfare cost; it is a commitment to human capital. If intelligence is distributed across a normal curve there are as many potential electricians and engineers, plumbers and paediatricians in the half a million kids now rotting in unemployment as there are in this year’s first year university entrants.

And if anybody is worried about compulsion and wonders whether it is right to force an 18 year old to do anything against their will let them explain to the young underclass that they either acquire skills or face a wasted life.