Participants in the latest trial of the cashless welfare card in Western Australia’s Goldfields say the program has caused them “horrible” financial stress and greatly reduced their independence.
The Government says the card, administered by the Department of Social Services, is aimed at tackling problems related to alcohol, drug abuse and gambling.
The card is designed to limit access to cash and quarantines 80 per cent of welfare payments on the card itself for daily essentials like food and public transport.
But participants in the region’s largest town, Kalgoorlie say, that contrary to the Government’s intentions, the card has only made them more dependent on support.
Local Barbara Clinch said she cannot make repayments for a recent bank loan because the remaining 20 per cent of her welfare paid into her bank account does not cover them.
“That doesn’t even cover the cost of my loan, so that puts me in debt. I can’t pay it because the company I got the loan from, you can’t put the card down [to deduct payments],” Ms Clinch said.
“Now I’m in debt with Westpac and I pay interest. It’s really horrible. I’m in so much debt, it’s not even funny.”
The card will be rolled out to 3,600 recipients of various welfare payments in the region, with the majority expected to be non-Indigenous, according to the Prime Minister.
The Goldfields trial comes after two others that commenced in 2016 in the east Kimberley region of WA and Ceduna in South Australia.
‘We’re human just like everybody else’
Vic Savill, who lives in the nearby town of Kambalda, said his inability to read or write meant he could not understand how to use the card without his wife’s help.
Mr Savill, 61, receives the disability support pension and because of a brain tumour a few years ago, struggles with everyday tasks.
Where previously he enjoyed more flexibility with his welfare payments made directly into his bank account, he now cannot even shop for groceries without his wife.
“I cannot read, write or use ATMs,” he said. “If my wife wasn’t there to help me, I don’t know what I’d be able to do. I’d probably starve.”
Another welfare recipient, single parent Gloria Smith, cares for her son who has a disability.
She said the card, which she received in the mail a couple of weeks ago, has made it more difficult to afford her son’s basic necessities.
“I do my best as a carer. I didn’t ask for my son to be born with a disability, it was just a freak of nature that he was born that way, and it’s the same with any other child,” Ms Smith said.
“My son’s birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks and I was going to give him $100 for his birthday and I can’t do that now because it’s stuck on this card.”
Ms Smith said she feared humiliation that came with using the card in public, such as if the card is rejected at a shop’s checkout.
She said she and many others felt essentially helpless to do anything about their financial situation.
“We’re human just like everybody else, we have rights. But it feels like our rights are being taken away from us because of this card,” she said.
The future of welfare
Social Services Minister Dan Tehan said during a visit to Kalgoorlie that it was still too early to say if the card was working or not.
He added that even though the trial was yet to finish, he had so far received positive feedback from the community.
In any case, the cashless welfare card is a radical experiment that could change the way welfare is delivered in Australia in the future.
Mr Tehan said the Government would be able to decide on whether the card would be expanded once trials were concluded and sufficient data had been gathered.
“The key of course is to make sure that we can get the support of the Senate for us to continue to roll it out,” Mr Tehan said.
“But everything I’ve seen so far shows clearly the community sees this as a way to deal with some problems that we haven’t been able to address for the last 100 years.”
Mr Tehan said he eventually wanted to see its users transition off welfare altogether. In the meantime, local support centres are able to help resolve issues relating to cards in the community.
“[The cashless welfare card] helps because we’ve seen improvements in lives. So that means there’s improvement in outcomes and we’ve seen people go off welfare and into work.”