Social stigma costs the unemployed

jobsLast week was Anti-Poverty Week, an initiative designed to draw attention to the millions of Australians and billions of people around the world who live in poverty and the enormous disparity between their plight and the lives of the super-wealthy.

One of the principle causes of poverty is unemployment. In many developed countries, the negative consequences of unemployment are mitigated to some extent by social security, which provides a safety net for people who cannot support themselves financially. Unfortunately, in Australia there is a great deal of stigma associated with being on unemployment benefits, brought about in no small part through the hysterical scapegoating of ‘dole bludgers’ in the mainstream media and in some political quarters. In the minds of many Australians, a substantial proportion of welfare recipients deliberately cheat the system, even though only a tiny proportion actually does so.

Recently, research by The Australia Institute was designed to explore how the stigma of being on unemployment benefits influences what people think about what constitutes an adequate safety net. In a controlled experimental study, 1,034 Australians were asked one of two questions:

1. How much money do you think a single adult living in Australia needs per week in order to meet the cost of living?

2. How much do you think a single unemployed adult should receive per week from Centrelink?

Respondents who were asked about the cost of living provided an average dollar figure of $454. Those who were asked about unemployment benefits gave an average dollar figure of $329, or $125 less than the estimated cost of living. We could conclude from this that the social stigma associated with being on unemployment benefits has a dollar value of $125 per week, or $6,500 per year. With around 550,000 people on Newstart Allowance, this means that the total value of the stigma associated with being on unemployment benefits is around $3.6 billion per year.

We might also conclude that Australians tend to think about other people in very different ways to how think about themselves if they were in the same situation – that is, in desperate need of financial support. If it is the job of our political leaders to provide a vision for a better Australia – rather than pander to community prejudice – then encouraging greater empathy and compassion for people in difficult situations would be a great way to start.

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