Technologising the poor: Cashless Debit Card trials expanding despite no credible evidence regarding positive outcomes

By Dr Shelley Bielefeld
Senior Lecturer
Griffith Law School

Australia’s social security system has undergone significant change in recent years, where the poor are increasingly subject to technologically enhanced oversight. The Cashless Debit Card (CDC) is part of this trend. The CDC was triggered by a recommendation in the 2014 Forrest Review, purportedly to address alcohol addiction, substance abuse and gambling issues.

Under the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Debit Card Trial) Act 2015 (Cth), the objectives the CDC are to: reduce the amount of cash ‘available to be spent on alcoholic beverages, gambling and illegal drugs’, ‘determine whether such a reduction decreases violence or harm in trial areas’, ‘determine whether such arrangements are more effective when community bodies are involved’, and ‘encourage socially responsible behaviour’. Eighty per cent of a person’s regular social security payment is quarantined on the CDC, which can be spent at limited retail outlets and service providers.

The CDC was introduced in the Ceduna region in South Australia in March 2016, the East Kimberley in Western Australia in April 2016, the Goldfields region in Western Australia in March2018; and, at the time of writing, there is a Bill before Parliament to extend the card to the Bundaberg and Hervey Bay areas in Queensland — the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card Trial Expansion) Bill 2018.

The government claims the CDC has led to positive outcomes and is worthy of continuation in initial trial sites and expansion to new trial sites. However, the July 2018 report by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) attests that there is no solid evidence to support the government’s assertions that the CDC has been a success. The ANAO state that ‘monitoring and evaluation’ of the CDC ‘was inadequate’. Consequently, they could not conclude that social harm had been reduced by the CDC.

The ANAO highlight other weaknesses of the CDC trial, including that there was poor risk management, no cost benefit analysis, a weak use of data, inadequate review of key performance indicators, and no baseline data to accurately measure change. The ANAO also stress that evaluation was not built into the CDC program design, and there was problematic procurement of the CDC provider, Indue Ltd, and evaluator, Orima.

Taken together, these factors paint a very different picture about the operation, monitoring and evaluation of the CDC than that portrayed by government Ministers responsible for expanding the scheme. The latter have displayed a troubling tendency to disregard all negative feedback about the CDC.

Numerous social security recipients subject to the CDC report that it has created difficulties for them in paying for essentials like food, housing, and school items for children. Many experience unnecessary financial hardship as a result of the card. A perverse outcome of the CDC is that people on the lowest incomes now find that their social security payment does not go as far as it once did because the option to pay for all outgoings in cash has been removed. They now carry the burden of card minimum spend requirements and card surcharges, despite being allocated no additional income to cover these costs. Their capacity to choose low cost merchants is also curtailed.

As for substance abuse, the majority of CDC participants in Ceduna and the East Kimberley indicate that alcohol consumption has either increased or stayed the same in their communities. The majority of CDC participants also say violence in their communities has either increased or stayed the same since the CDC started. This is too flimsy a foundation to justify continuation of the CDC in the current trial locations — let alone expand it elsewhere.

It is evident that technological surveillance and restrictions on consumer capacity via the CDC are considered unfair and discriminatory by numerous people subjected to them. Nevertheless, the government remains ideologically wedded to the CDC despite opposition to the scheme from coerced program participants, academic commentators, NGO’s, and others.

By repeatedly referring to the ‘vulnerability’ of welfare recipients with cash as a problem in need of a technological solution the government attempts to mask the domination inherent in cashless welfare transfers through the language of support. Yet something else is also at work here — the neoliberal rationalisation of privatisation of social security payment processes — creating a new ‘market’ for poverty profiteers. This development is consistent with neoliberal governance, which requires states to create markets where they do not naturally exist in order to facilitate market rule.

The poverty solution, according to neoliberals, is to technologise the poor. Technological intervention is presumed to be capable of taming their allegedly deviant dispositions. Technologising the poor will also supposedly bring them up to date with neoliberal expectations and make them fit for the future. To the extent to which this neoliberal technology fetish takes root within the state it produces changes that can be destabilising and counter-productive — and this apparent with the CDC which causes significant problems for many people in paying their bills.

Although Australia has privatised aspects of the social security system, notably with non-government entities administering workfare regimes, payment to one particular company, Indue Ltd, for administering delivery of social security payments is a new phenomenon. Indue Ltd holds lucrative government contracts for the CDC IT build and implementation — now exceeding $21 million — all to micromanage the low incomes of up to 10,000 (soon to be up to 15,000) government income support recipients. This development betrays the original purpose of social security in this country, which is to provide dignified support for people in need, not a covert tax payer subsidy for the financial services industry.

* Note this article draws on a recent journal article and Parliamentary Submission: Shelley Bielefeld, ‘Cashless Welfare Transfers for “Vulnerable” Welfare Recipients — Law, Ethics and Vulnerability’ (2018) Feminist Legal Studies 26(1): 1-23, and Shelley Bielefeld, Submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs, Social Services Legislation Amendment (Cashless Debit Card Trial Expansion) Bill 2018, 22 July 2018, 1-13.