Friday, May 1, 2009

Earn Or Learn... Or Starve

The Council Of Australian Governments has agreed to a Federal Government plan to stop young people dropping out of school only to end up on the dole. The basic thrust of the plan is for people under 25 to be either earning or learning, and if they do neither they will be punished by having their Government benefits cut off. It includes a guarantee that training places will be made available for young unemployed people aged between 20 and 25, while those under 20 will be required to be completing a year 12 or equivalent qualification. Just what happens to people who have completed year 12 before they turn 20 I am not quite sure, but I presume they too would be guaranteed some sort of training opportunity.

For those who fail to conform to the requirements, not only will they lose their Centrelink benefits, but if they are still eligible dependents, their parents will also lose their family tax benefit payments. Obviously this is supposed to provide a fairly substantial motivation to stay in school, but there are always square pegs who simply do not fit into the round holes, and no doubt there will be some people who fall foul of the system. Whether there are unusual family circumstances where for example a young person is the only one available to stay home to care for a disabled family member, or at the other end of the spectrum if a teenager is simply unresponsive to parental influence, is it really helpful or productive to simply cut off family tax benefits?

As we have already seen with some of the unduly harsh outcomes from the mutual obligation regime, the question will be whether it is fair to penalize people by removing income support at a time when they are already struggling. Due to factors beyond anyone’s control, unemployment is rising and will continue to rise as job opportunities become more and more difficult to find. The risk is that a draconian system of enforcement will create cases of people falling through the proverbial cracks and becoming even more marginalized than ever. When the choices are earn, learn or starve, there will unfortunately be some who starve.

Of course, the numbers of any such misfits would be likely to be small, and most people would probably see the wisdom of either earning or learning. The idea of keeping kids in school until the completion of year 12 is basically a good one, and anything which encourages that should be seen as a positive step. In uncertain times, the worst thing a young person could do would be to abandon school only to wind up without a job, without purpose, and without prospects. Common sense would dictate that unless there is a solid job opportunity, then even the roughest of square pegs would be better off completing school.

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