(ABC Goldfields: Tom Joyner)
Every time Sylvia Asusaar lines up at the supermarket to pay for her groceries, she has to make a difficult decision.
- Participants of the latest trial say the card’s stigma is negatively affecting their mental health
- ACOSS says stigma and shame around the card is a “substantial” issue across all trial sites
- Andrew Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation recommended the Government allow banks to issue the cards to tackle stigma
It is not about how much money is in her account — she is instead worried about letting anyone see how she pays.
“I hide the card until the very last second before I’m about to put it in the eftpos machine,” she said.
Ms Asusaar is a single mother, and her family’s income is reliant on Centrelink payments for her son’s disability as well as for her role as his carer.
This year, she was enrolled in the latest trial of the cashless welfare card in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia.
The card is a Department of Social Services initiative designed to combat problems related to alcohol and drug abuse.
Ms Asusaar is one of a number of people who said they felt ashamed when using the card, and that it was having an adverse effect on their mental health.
They said that comments on social media and even in public situations denigrating them as welfare recipients had increased since the card’s Goldfields trial commenced earlier this year.
The card itself is innocuous — silver and of standard size, it resembles a credit card save for a prominent logo on its top left for Indue, the company contracted to roll out the program.
Participants can be exempted from the program, but only when their participation would seriously risk their mental, physical or emotional wellbeing.
For mother-of-four Ms Asusaar, the card represents the first time she has ever had a visible mark of her status as Centrelink recipient.
“That card, you might as well give us a big sticker that says ‘welfare’ — it’s horrible,” she said.
“We’ve had people who try to [put] stickers over part of the card, literally hiding it up their sleeve.
“[I don’t want to] out myself and tell everybody that I’m on some sort of welfare payment because of the card — it’s just not going to happen.”
‘I was in tears’
It is a similar story for Melissa Thomson, who has had her card for a month and also receives Centrelink payments as a carer.
“People’s perceptions when you present this card, their whole body language changes and you can tell that they’re making assumptions about you when you’ve done nothing wrong,” Ms Thomson said.
“It affects my mental health; it affects my ability to be a good mum; it affects my day-to-day life on how to manage my son’s autism and his meltdowns.”
The current trial of the cashless welfare card in WA’s Goldfields is the third and largest so far after two others in Ceduna, South Australia and Kununurra in the East Kimberley.
Under the scheme, the card quarantines 80 per cent of all Centrelink payments, which cannot be spent on alcohol or gambling.
Social Services Minister Dan Tehan said trials of the card were improving lives and communities where they were in place.
“I have seen firsthand how the card has made a difference in Ceduna,” he said in a statement.
“In Tennant Creek this week the local community asked for the Cashless Debit Card as a way to address the problems associated with drinking and welfare money being misspent.”
Sam Harding, a Kalgoorlie resident who receives the disability support pension, said she had endured multiple incidents of abuse in public associated with her card.
“I was doing some shopping and a transaction went through incorrectly … I think [the cashier] made about 10 to 15 attempts but it didn’t work,” Ms Harding said.
“People just started saying ‘oh that’s one of those Indue card people’… by the time I was ready to leave, I was in tears.
“Thinking about it now makes me a bit emotional.”
Ms Harding said she cannot remember ever being the target of abuse before the card’s introduction, despite receiving Centrelink payments for years.
Stigma a ‘substantial issue’: ACOSS
Charmaine Crowe, a senior policy officer at the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), said that feelings of shame and stigma were a “substantial issue” in the cashless welfare card trials.
“The problem with this kind of policy is that it casts an aspersion over the people subjected to it … that they have issues with alcohol or drugs and gambling,” Ms Crowe said.
“Unfortunately policies like cashless debit and income management I think further demonise people on income payments because it identifies people being in some way deficient.”
Minister Tehan said the Government extended the trials in Ceduna and East Kimberley and expanded to the Goldfields “based on independent evaluation results and extensive consultation with local communities”.
But a report by the Australian National Audit Office earlier this month criticised the Government’s independent evaluation of the scheme and “lack of robustness in data collection”.
The idea behind the scheme was initially proposed by Andrew Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation, which made recommendations to the Federal Government in November to change the card.
The foundation’s Yulu McGrady said it was currently lobbying Minister Tehan to implement a “white label policy”, which would mean banks could administer the card directly.
“So for instance, if someone was with the Commonwealth Bank, their cashless debit card would be administered by the Commonwealth Bank, therefore removing the opportunity for stigma to occur,” Mr McGrady said.
“When I was on the ground in April, I didn’t get any direct feedback about the stigma at the time, but we do understand there’s an opportunity for it to occur.”
The ABC asked Minister Tehan if the Federal Government would implement the foundation’s recommendation but he did not provide a response.
Card a ‘circuit breaker’ for social problems
Mr McGrady is among several groups who have voiced their support of the card’s trial, noting the majority of feedback from the Goldfields trial was positive.
“Some of the stories that we’ve heard about the card are it’s helping [participants] to take control and empower them to make decisions — it’s awesome,” he said.
“We acknowledge that implementing this card is not going to fix all the issues, both social and economic, within a region.
“But we do acknowledge it plays an important part, particularly being a circuit breaker for individuals in a vicious cycle of unemployment, with drugs and alcohol and gambling.”
Goldfields Rehabilitation Service executive manager Jane Fajardo said there were 10 more referrals for alcohol abuse than average since the trial began.
“We’ve got more referrals, I just can’t tell if it’s because of the cashless card,” she said.
“It’s an opportunity for them to see the other side of not being dependent on something.”
Police in the Goldfields are monitoring any potential impact of the card on crime rates, but Kalgoorlie Superintendent Darryl Gaunt said it was still too early to say.
“There has been a significant reduction in crime across the Goldfields,” he said.
“But at this point, much of that can be attributed to Operation Fortitude [a boost in police presence], which started in March.
“From a policing perspective, we have not seen a major variation in issues that could be attributed to the cashless welfare card.”