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Jenny Macklin ignores her own department's evaluations

Jenny Macklin ignores her own department's evaluations
Eva Cox New Matilda 5 December 2012

Jenny Macklin claims a recent evaluation shows the NT Intervention is working. In fact, the research she is citing points to myriad problems with the program, writes Eva Cox

Can Jenny Macklin please explain why she continues to fund, and even expand, compulsory income management? It has again been evaluated as offering little evidence of benefits, but her latest media release on an initial commissioned research project failed to report something crucial: the many doubts the project itself expressed about the value of income management. The research, led by the Social Policy Research Centre, is concerned about the possible damage inflicted by the NT Intervention as well as the limited positive data.

Therefore, the Minister’s media release is quite misleading. It categorically states the program provides the following benefits and outcomes:

"Income management helps families ensure their welfare payments are spent in the best interests of children. It ensures that money is available for life essentials, and provides a tool to stabilise people’s circumstances and ease immediate financial stress."

Her claim is implicitly undermined further on the press release. Positive findings from the report are indicated by listing limited benefits in the next two paragraphs: (emphasis mine)

"The interim report by the Australian National University, Australian Institute of Family Studies and the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales found that among Indigenous people on income management in the Northern Territory, there was a statistically significant perception of an improvement in their ability to afford food."

"It also found that income management may make a contribution to improving wellbeing for some, particularly those who have difficulties in managing their finances or are subject to financial harassment."

These are very tentative measures of perception and possibilities as opposed to statistically valid gains. As the Department has had the report for four months, the result can be viewed as their best effort to extract the best news. The media release fails to mention any of the criticisms of the program voiced in the evaluation, except the relatively innocuous difficulties of accessing some money management courses.

They fail to include the following useful paragraphs on the limits of the program from the report itself:

"There is little evidence to date that income management is resulting in widespread behaviour change, either with respect to building an ability to effectively manage money or in building ‘socially responsible behaviour’ beyond the direct impact of limiting the amount that can be spent on some items. As such, the early indications are that income management operates more as a control or protective mechanism than as an intervention which increases capabilities."

Nor did Macklin’s release report on other problems such as the high levels of feeling shamed by income management:

"Across all of the groups on income management some two thirds or more of people experience some feelings of discrimination, embarrassment or unfairness about their being income managed, with a lack of fairness being the dominating feeling reported. Indigenous people in NTER areas felt significantly more discriminated against than those in the contrast group."

"For many there is a strong sense of having been treated unfairly and being disempowered. Only a quarter of people subject to income management who were surveyed said that they never felt a sense of unfairness."

And then there’s this, from the overall summary of the project (emphasis mine):

"The evidence gathered to date for this evaluation suggests that NIM has had a diverse set of impacts. For some it has been positive, for others negative and for others it has had little impact. Taken as a whole there is not strong evidence that, at this stage, the program has had a major impact on outcomes overall."

"…The evidence indicates that the program may make a contribution to improving the wellbeing for some, particularly those who have difficulties in managing their finances or are subject to financial harassment. Voluntary Income Management in particular is viewed positively by people to whom it is applied, and by other stakeholders."

On the basis of the above, it is very hard to see why the Minister and her Cabinet members are not questioning the financial costs when they are looking for cuts. The program is quite expensive, with continuing costs to the NT of an estimated $60M; the administrative costs for more than 15,000 mainly Indigenous Territorians affected by the program. (This estimate is based on ACOSS findings which put the cost of the Intervention at $4400 per person.)

The expansion into many other sites and the proposed additional categories for this program make no sense, in view of both the lack of evidence for its benefits and the widespread opposition of welfare experts. This extension of compulsory programs also ignores some evidence in the evaluation that the voluntary measure is preferred.

Given the same department is supporting cuts to sole parents’ payments as part of a drive for a surplus, why will they not not cut this program, rather than expand it? The Government can retain some forms of voluntary support via Centrepay, for those who seem to like it, even if there is no proof they benefit, but stop the compulsory programs, except by court order.

The evaluation points out that most of those included under this category have had no prior problems with their spending choices. So why remove their right to control their finances?

"Over half of the Indigenous survey respondents indicated that they had no problems with alcohol, drugs or gambling in their family, some 30 per cent report a small problem and 16 per cent that one of these was a major problem. This level of incidence is not inconsistent with other data such as ABS data which reports that 46 per cent of Indigenous people in remote areas totally abstained from alcohol as did 31 per cent of those in non-remote locations, and a level of chronic risky, or high risk, drinking of 17 per cent (ABS 2011)."

We await the Minister’s reply.