On the Frontlines of the Digital Welfare State: Musings from Australia

Welfare beneficiaries are in danger of losing their payments to “glitches” or because they lack internet access. So why is digitization still seen as the shiny panacea to poverty?

I sit here in my local pub in South Australia using the Wi-Fi, wondering whether this will still be possible next week. A month ago, we were in lockdown, but my routine for writing required me to leave the house because I did not have reliable internet at home.

Not having internet may seem alien to many. When you are in a low-income bracket, things people take for granted become huge obstacles to navigate. This is becoming especially apparent as social security systems are increasingly digitized. Not having access to technologies can mean losing access to crucial survival payments.

A working phone with internet data is required to access the Australian social security system. Applicants must generally apply for payments through the government website, which is notorious for crashing. When the pandemic hit, millions of the newly-unemployed were outraged that they could not access the website. Those of us already receiving payments just smiled wryly; we are used to this. We are told to use the website, but then it crashes, so we call and are put on hold for an hour. Then we get cut off and have to call back. This is normal. You also need a phone to fulfill reporting obligations. If you don’t have a working phone, or your battery dies, or your phone credit runs out, your payment can be suspended through the assumption that you’re deliberately shirking your reporting obligations.

In the last month, I was booted off my social security disability employment service. Although I had a certified disability affecting my job-seeking ability, the digital system had unceremoniously dumped me onto the regular job-seeking system, which punishes people for missing appointments. Unfortunately, the system had “glitched,” a popular term used by those in power for when payment systems fail. After narrowly missing a scheduled phone appointment, my payment was suspended indefinitely. Phone calls of over an hour didn’t resolve it; I didn’t even get to speak to a person, who could have resolved the issue. This is the danger of trusting digital technology above humans.

This is also the huge flaw in Income Management (IM), the “banking system” through which social security payments are controlled. I put “banking system” in quotation marks because it’s not run by a bank; there are none of the consumer protections of financial institutions, nor the choice to move if you’re unhappy with the service. The cashless welfare card is a tool for such IM: beneficiaries on the card can only withdraw 20% of their payment as cash, and the card restricts how the remaining 80% can be spent (for example, purchases of alcohol and online retailers like eBay are restricted). IM was introduced in certain rural areas of Australia deemed “disadvantaged” by the government.

The cashless welfare card is operated by Indue, a company contracted by the Australian government to administer social security payments. This is not a company with a good reputation for dealing with vulnerable populations. It is a monolith that is almost impossible to fight. Indue’s digital system can’t recognize rent cycles, meaning after a certain point in the month, the ‘limit’ for rent can be reached and a rent debit rejected. People have had to call and beg Indue to let them pay their landlords; others have been made homeless when the card stopped them from paying rent. They are stripped of agency over their own lives. They can’t use their own payments for second-hand school uniforms, or community fêtes, or buying a second-hand fridge. When you can’t use cash, avenues of obtaining cheaper goods are blocked off.

Certain politicians tout the cashless welfare card as a way to stop the poor from spending on alcohol and drugs. In reality, the vast majority affected by this system have no such problems with addiction. But when you are on the card, you are automatically classified as someone who cannot be trusted with your own money; an addict, a gambler, a criminal.

Politicians claim it’s like any other card, but this is a lie. It makes you a pariah in the community and is a tacit license for others to judge you. When you are at the whim and mercy of government policy, when you are reliant on government payments controlled by a third party, you are on the outside looking in. You’re automatically othered; you’re made to feel ashamed, stupid, and incapable.

Beyond this stigma, there are practical issues too. The cashless welfare card system assumes you have access to a smartphone and internet to check your account balance, which can be impossible for those with low incomes. Pandemic restrictions close the pubs, universities, cafes, and libraries which people rely on for internet access. Those without access are left by the wayside. “Glitches” are also common in Indue accounts: money can go missing without explanation. This ruins account-holders’ plans and forces them to waste hours having non-stop arguments with brick-wall bureaucracy and faceless people telling them they don’t have access to their own money.

Politicians recently had the opportunity to reject this system of brutality. The “Cashless Welfare Card trials” were slated to end on December 31, 2020, and a bill was voted on to determine if these “trials” would continue. The people affected by this system already told politicians how much it ruins their lives. Once again, they used their meager funds to call politicians’ offices and beg them to see the hell they’re experiencing. They used their internet data to email and rally others to do the same. I personally delivered letters to two politicians’ offices, complete with academic studies detailing the problems with IM. For a split second, it seemed like the politicians listened and some even promised to vote to end the trials. But a last-minute backroom deal meant that these promises were broken. Lived experiences of welfare recipients did not matter.

The global push to digitize welfare systems must be interrogated. When the most vulnerable in society are in danger of losing their payments to “glitches” or because they lack internet access, it begs the question: why is digitization still seen as the shiny panacea to poverty?

February 1, 2021. Nijole Naujokas, an Australian activist and writer who is passionate about social justice rights for the vulnerable. She is the current Secretary of the Australian Unemployed Workers’ Union, and is doing her Bachelor of Honors in Creative Writing at The University of Adelaide.