Welfare recipients forced onto cashless debit cards are approved to shop at luxury online stores they can’t afford but restricted from making frugal secondhand purchases.
Opponents of the controversial trial have branded the cashless debit card scheme a form of “financial apartheid” for quarantining 80 per cent of a person’s welfare payment.
Cardholders are restricted from buying alcohol, drugs or gambling and cannot withdraw cash.
However they may shop at a list of “approved merchants” which bizarrely includes designer labels like Peter Alexander, Diana Ferrari, Lorna Jane, Estee Lauder and Pumpkin Patch.
The expensive online shops are unaffordable to welfare recipients, with a pair of pyjamas at Peter Alexander priced from $100 while shoes from Diana Ferrari can cost as much as a grocery-shopping expedition.
But affordable websites such as Ebay are banned, while the quarantining of 80 per cent of a person’s welfare payment onto the card severely restricts the ability to make cost-saving cash purchases on popular sites like Gumtree, or from thrift stores and markets.
The cashless debit card trial, which has been operating in three overwhelmingly Indigenous regions in WA and SA, will be expanded for the first time to a non-Indigenous area following the announcement that the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay region in Queensland is the fourth trial site.
Bundaberg is famous for its rum distillery and is a produce-growing region while the tourist town of Hervey Bay is the home of whale watching and gateway to World Heritage-listed Fraser Island.
About 6000 people aged 35 and under on Newstart, Youth Allowance or Parenting Payment will be placed on the trial from early next year – the largest cohort thus far – despite the concerns of churches, welfare organisations and human rights groups and the condemnation of researchers and academics.
Vocal opponent Kathryn Wilkes, spokesperson for No Cashless Debit Card/Hinkler Region, blasted the scheme for enforcing “financial aparthied” and “social segregation”.
She said people would be ashamed and stigmatised each time they went shopping and were forced to publicly hand over a welfare card to pay for goods.
“Why don’t they just make us wear a yellow star,” Ms Wilkes said.
“It’s disgusting, it’s segregation, it’s discrimination against a person.”
Ms Wilkes said the federal government did not understand the struggles of people on low incomes, as evidenced by the current list of merchants approved for the Indigenous trial sites.
“People can’t afford to buy something new; people on social security buy everything secondhand. We don’t get enough income to go to Harvey Norman and buy a brand new fridge,” she said.
A 13-month analysis of the East Kimberley trial, undertaken by Dr Elise Klein and Sarouche Razi, decribed the cashless debit card system as “deeply flawed”, “chaotic” and a “symbol of government control and regulation”.
Report co-author Dr Klein told The New Daily there was no evidence the card was reducing alcohol and drug consumption or gambling through the quarantine of payments.
Instead, it was making people’s lives more difficult by limiting their independence and shopping decisions and breeding feelings of disempowerment.
The report published by the Australian National University found cardholders were unable to make cash purchases for big home items like fridges, give school money to the kids, buy cheaply from markets and farmers or attend local events.
“The cashless debit card trial has been condemned by myself and other academics. It is based on assumptions that are ridiculous – that everyone on welfare is an alcoholic,” Dr Klein said.
“People are poor because of structural issues – not behavioural. The only way to get people off welfare is to get jobs.”
Member for Hinkler Keith Pitt said there was “strong support” for the trial in his electorate around Bundaberg and the community wanted a solution to youth unemployment.
“The region has the second-highest unemployment rate in Queensland at 28.7 per cent with many now experiencing intergenerational welfare dependence,” Mr Pitt said.
“Of those who are aged under 25 on welfare as at 30 June 2016, 90 per cent had a parent who was on welfare during the past 15 years.”
A spokesperson for The Department of Social Services said cardholders could still use 20 per cent of their payments for cash purchases (about $107 a fortnight on Newstart), however Ebay was banned because it sold alcohol.
Participants could also make use of a ‘transfer’ limit allowing money to be moved from the cashless debit card to their bank accounts (limited to $200 a month).