Buying and Selling the Poor: Inside Australia’s privatised welfare-to-work market (Siobhan O’Sullivan, Michael McGann & Mark Considine, SUP)
When Paul Keating put elements of Australia’s ‘welfare to work’ system out to tender in the mid-1990s, he could scarcely have imagined the system we have in place today: one dominated by short-term contracts, employee churn, and for-profit and multinational corporations. Buying and Selling the Poor takes a rigorous but accessible look inside the ‘black box’ of our privatised jobseeker market, and at the commodification of the people within it. The authors, academics in the fields of politics, public policy and social science, combine their 20 years of survey data with immersive fieldwork. They were granted remarkable on-the-ground access to four ‘best performing’ job provider offices across Victoria and New South Wales over 18 months, hoping to discover best practices for helping the most disadvantaged people in the system. The resulting book takes us into the world of the sector’s case managers, who are beset by onerous targets, star ratings and caseloads of 150 or so clients at a time. We meet a cast of anonymised characters with varying approaches, from the hard-line Katsy at a metropolitan site to mission-driven Andrew in regional New South Wales. What’s uncovered is a disjointed, inconsistent system obsessed with outcomes that it repeatedly fails to deliver. This revealing, often heart-wrenching work will prove enlightening for not only those within the policy field, but also anyone with an interest in or experience dealing with a system that often feels like a race to the bottom.
Kim Thomson is a freelance writer.