Will the Healthy Welfare Card be healthy?

By Jon Altman, PhD '82

After prolonged debate, deliberation and delay, the Healthy Welfare Card will soon be launched at two trial sites in remote Australia.

At its simplest, the Heathy Welfare Card is a debit card where 80 per cent of the welfare payments of designated recipients is deposited.

The card is programmed to disallow the purchase of alcohol and none of the balance can be converted to cash.

While the card itself is 'cashless', welfare recipients will be able to use 20 per cent of their entitlements (plus any other income that can be earned, borrowed, begged or received as a gift) as cash.

The policy logic of the card appears to be that if 80 per cent of welfare income cannot be used to purchase alcohol or cashed out to purchase illicit drugs, alcohol, gambling products or services, then people will lead healthier and more productive lives.

To test this, the card is being trialled for 12 months and will then be rigorously and independently evaluated.

The 2015 Federal Budget allocated $2.7 million to the trial, although it is unlikely this sum includes bureaucratic and technological set up or evaluation costs.

The card has its immediate origins in the Abbott Government-commissioned Indigenous Jobs and Training Review, chaired by mining magnate Andrew Forrest in 2014.

The review recommended the Healthy Welfare Card and 100 per cent quarantining of welfare.

Recognising that even in the 21st Century people need some cash, quarantining was reduced to 80 per cent.

The card has links to the BasicsCard introduced as part of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Intervention in 2007.

BasicsCard only quarantines 50 per cent of income, although that can be increased.

It is also more restrictive.

It cannot be used to purchase alcohol, tobacco, pornography or for gambling.

BasicsCard was evaluated by a team including ANU social scientists.

The evaluation report found no conclusive evidence that BasicsCard - mainly targeting over 20,000 Indigenous Australians - made a difference to health and wellbeing. In many cases, it made life harder for welfare recipients.