For more than half a century, policy experts have been putting forward plans to simplify the income-support system. Some of the more radical plans, such as a negative income tax, would replace our current system of allowances and pensions with a single unconditional payment paid on the basis of need. The simplifiers see reform as a technical problem: an effort to balance the goals of poverty alleviation, maintenance of work incentives and affordability. A simpler system would achieve this aim. Much of the complexity in Australia’s current system stems from two features: separate payment types for recipients who are expected to work and those who are not; and for those who are expected to work, measures designed to deter long-term dependence on income support and enforce participation. These features resist simplification because much of the rationale for them is political rather than technical. Even if where it is economically inefficient, policymakers are reluctant to abandon a system that distinguishes between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ recipients and treats the two groups differently.
Don Arthur’s paper was presented at the Reform and Rhetoric in Australian Social Policy Symposium which brought together researchers at The University of Sydney on 19 September 2014 to discuss how contemporary social policy is being talked about, designed and debated, and is published in the Australian Review of Public Affairs (642).