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How much behavioural conditionality is too much?

Internationally, the payment of welfare benefits is increasingly being made contingent on a diverse array of behavioural conditions from attending parenting classes, to sending children to school and getting them immunised. We need more debate about the threat this growing regime of surveillance and punishment poses to citizens’ autonomy.

What does attending playgroup having in common with getting off drugs? The government thinks threatening to take away your welfare payments will help you do both.

Governments used to be more reluctant to scrutinise welfare recipients’ behaviour for fear of deepening stigma. Now politicians see imposing behavioural obligations on recipients as a way of shoring up taxpayers’ support for the benefits system. What are the implications for liberal democracy of thinking of the social security as available to provide financial incentives for behavioural change?

To examine this I looked into the use of income support system to promote childhood immunisation coverage. Unlike many comparable countries, Australia uses family payments and childcare subsidies as a lever to encourage parents to vaccinate their children. The principle of ‘No Jab, No Pay’ has been implemented in various forms in Australia since the late 1990s and enjoys broad support. Its advocates rely on a communitarian argument. Families have a duty to contribute to the important public health goal of preventing contagious childhood diseases. Parents who refuse to vaccinate their children are seen as free riders – their families benefit from herd immunity without taking the small risks involved in contributing to it.

Seeking to solve this problem by withholding payments appeals to people who see self-interest as the key to individual motivation. But psychologists tell us that focusing narrowly on sticks and carrots as the drivers of human behaviour overlooks the strong influence that intrinsic motivation has on our behaviour. Our desire for fairness or to be particular kinds of people (a good mother, a good neighbour, a trustworthy person) has a big impact on the choices we make.

In the case of childhood immunisation, some immunisation experts have misgivings about the big stick approach. They are calling for the funding of more sophisticated communication strategies so that vaccine-hesitant parents do not just receive generic information about the benefits of immunisation, but can have a dialogue about the relevance of immunisation to their families with a health professional they trust. This approach seeks to bolster parents’ intrinsic motivation to have their children vaccinated instead of imposing an extrinsic threat of financial punishment.

This approach is less coercive and less insulting than relying on financial incentives. The same policy choice between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is present in other examples of welfare conditionality.

The failed program of making Aboriginal parents’ welfare payments contingent on the school attendance of their children relied on extrinsic motivation. A less insulting, less coercive approach to improve school attendance supports school principals and teachers and principals to build positive relationships with Aboriginal school children and their families, in other words to build their intrinsic motivation to attend school. The recently rolled out ParentsNext program threats to punish parents for failing to take increase their employability their children to swimming lessons or to storytime at the library – activities that many single mothers are keen to do anyway.

Conditionality offers an alternative to listening to potential users to understand the barriers they face in accessing the services and working with them to find ways of removing those barriers. Welfare conditionality is particularly concerning when it displaces alternative ways of motivating desired behaviour such as investing in trust, legitimacy and fairness.

The effects on autonomy of each specific condition that is attached to welfare receipt might seem relatively small. But as welfare conditionality is seen as the solution to more and more social ills, it is time to consider the threat it potentially poses to citizens’ autonomy and equality.

In myriad ways, our behaviour affects those around us. Hence our duties to our fellow citizens are considerable. Yet the enforcement of these duties through a burgeoning regime of surveillance and punishment is a dystopian vision. The amount of behavioural information about us recorded and stored is ever growing. Networked electronic infrastructure enables cooperation and information sharing between government departments responsible for governing different areas of life. This information sharing facilitates the linking of payments to behaviour not intrinsically related to the purposes of those payments. This raises an equity issue: citizens on lower incomes are more vulnerable to intrusive monitoring than citizens who – at least at this point in the lives – don’t need income support.

International research is showing that the cumulative effect of behavioural conditions can start to undermine the capacity of the benefits system to provide families security against sudden changes in circumstances caused by illness or disability. Scholars have pointed to evidence that conditionality is leading to an increase in mental illness, homelessness and destitution. There is evidence that some highly vulnerable individuals are choosing to disengage from the social security system altogether rather than continue to be subject to conditionality.

We need more public debate over where all this behavioural conditionality is taking us as a society. I applaud the efforts of evaluators to find out whether conditionality ‘works’. But we also need more discussion about the ethical concerns posed by welfare conditionality to prevent policymakers unreflectively reaching for new conditions in response to ever more social problems.

Katherine Curchin is a lecturer in Social Policy at the ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods.

This article first appeared on The Policy Space and is republished here with their permission.

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