Manage This: income management is a feminist issue

By Jane Bullen

Income management is a feminist issue

In the lead-up to the F Collective event ‘Manage this: Women’s voices on Income Management’ (Tuesday 31 July, 6pm, NSW Teachers Federation Conference Centre, 23-33 Mary Street Surry Hills), I want to write about why I think Income Management is an issue of particular concern to feminists. This is despite the fact that Income Management can affect both men and women.

Some background about Income Management

Income Management is a system that controls how income support recipients can spend their benefit by quarantining 50-100% of a Centrelink payment so that it cannot be used to purchase certain items, such as cigarettes and alcohol.  An important feature of Income Management is that it uses a Basics Card that can only be used at limited number of retail outlets – big supermarkets, apparel and homewarestores – or through direct payments for items such as rent.


Income Management was first introduced as part of the 2007 NT Emergency Response, under which a series of controversial and racist measures were introduced into indigenous communities without consultation. These measures included compulsory acquisition of townships held under the title provisions of the Native Title Act 1993, through five year leases with compensation on a basis other than just terms; removal of customary law and cultural practice considerations from bail applications; and sentencing within criminal proceedings and the abolition of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP).

Since 2007, Income Management programs have been expanded and now operate in the whole of the Northern Territory; Perth and the Kimberly region in Western Australia; Logan, Rockhampton and Cape York in QueenslandPlayford in South Australia; Shepparton in Victoria; and Bankstown in NSW. Both political parties support Income Management and we can expect this scheme to be expanded further.

Income Management itself is expensive for taxpayers, and studies of its effects do not show any clear benefitsIt has been established and expanded with little opposition, possibly because Australians felt shocked and helpless at the contents of the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report that was used to justify its introduction in NT, and because it seemed to offer a concrete response to complex social problemsTo criticise it is to risk being seen to be doing nothing. But despite a number of reports on its operation there is no clear evidence that it is solving the problems that it purports to address. Income Management remains a paternalistic and racist program that has disproportionately and indiscriminately targeted indigenous Australians.


Income Management is applied to categories of people, rather than in the context of an individual’s situation (the categories differ between programs with some compulsory categories involving assessment by authorities of those people within the category). In doing this, Income Management characterises poor people’s behaviour as causing their povertyand ignores the range of other forces thatcan contribute to people’s situations. The diagnosis of bad behaviour as the problem therefore leads to the prescription of Income Management as the solution. A study by the Equal Right Alliance (ERA Reportof Women’s Experience of Income Management in the Northern Territory quoted women who did not have a history of financial or other problems and were indignant that they would no longer be permitted to manage their own finances.


Income Management and women’s financial independence

Income Management causes a loss of dignity and financial agency for all people who are, or believe they are, placed on it compulsorily. (Some NT women quoted in the ERA report were not aware that their participation in Income Management was voluntary, even though they had expressed a wish to by paid in cash rather than using the Basics Card.) However most (around 60%) income support recipients are women, as are most income support recipients placed on Income Management (for example, around 60% in the initial roll-out of income support in the Northern Territory and 79% in Western Australia).


But the fact that Income Management affects more women than men is not the only reason that losing financial independence has a particular significance for women.


Over centuries feminists have fought for women’s right to control our own lives, rather than being controlled by others including fathers, husbands, the church or the state. We have advocated for measures that would increase women’s autonomy or‘empower’ women. And, importantly, in the words of the song that Aretha Franklin turned into a feminist anthem in 1967, women wanted R-E-S-P-E-C-T.


Women in Australia before the late 19th century did not have the right to a bank account without their husband’s authority. Only 50 years ago, in the 1960s, women who applied for a loan were asked to have their husband sign for it, even if they were the sole earnerDuring and before this time Australian women used to talk of ‘running away from home money’, a small amount of cash stashed away just in case – the most minimal defence against complete dependence.


The second wave of feminism critiqued the cultural norm that was promoted for Australian families in the mid 20th century, where the husband controlled the purse strings and women could not exert financial agency. Feminists who worked to support women who came to the women’s refuges, health centres and other women’s services that were set up from the 1970s onwards aimed to work with women to support them to manage their own lives rather than have them managed by others.  


Feminists understood then (and still understand) that managing your money is a basic human right – and thus a feminist demand – and that it applies to almost all, whether you are escaping domestic violence, whether you are poor, whether you are having trouble paying the rent. The exception to this is people unable to manage their own affairs, for whom specific measures are appropriate, such as appointing a State Trustee, after a rigorous legal process to protect their rights. Feminists reject the application of Income Management to categories of people without proper protection of their rights.


It is this precious feminist gain of managing one’s own money that is being undermined for women on Income Management. It removes even simple financial management tools, such as shopping at bulk-buy outlets, markets, garage sales or second hand stores, as these do not accept the Basics Card. The ERA Report found that sometimes Income Management causes other problems such as having to phone around or travel long distances to find a pharmacy that will accept the Card. The ERA report also stated that women even ha difficulties checking the balance on the card because card-checking machines were broken.


Some women in the NT were concerned that Income Management meant they were losing their skills to manage their own money and that their children were growing up seeing that someone else would manage the bills and that they did not need to learn to manage money. Most (70%) did not feel safer.


These results are at odds with the government’s stated rationale for Income Management, which includes providing better financial security to women.



And, unsurprisingly, women reported that they felt humiliated, embarrassed and shamed when using their Basics Card, that shop employees were less nice to them and that they felt small and diminished. As one woman was quoted as saying: ‘the policy has no respect for people’s self-respect’.


Not only are precious gains in agency, autonomy and the right to manage our affairs undermined by Income Management, but priceless gains in the self-respect that accompanies these gains are undermined as well.


We need to employ better ways of dealing with social problems. We need approaches that build people up, develop their self-respect and do not punish whole categories of citizens. Women’s gains in financial management are recent, fragile and important. We need to work on strengthening them rather than undermining them.


Some References

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare for FaHCSIA, (2009) Report on the Evaluation of Income Management in the Northern Territory

Cox, E., (2011) The Case of Income Management Journal of Indigenous Policy, 12

Cox, E., (2012) Addendum Journal of Indigenous Policy, 12

Equality Rights Alliance (2011) Women’s Experience of Income Management in the Northern Territory


FAHCSIA (2010) Implementation Review of the Family Responsibilities Commission Final Report


ORIMA Research for FAHCSIA (2010) Evaluation of the Child Protection Scheme of Income Management and Voluntary Income Management Measures in Western Australia

Singh, S., and Cabraal, A. (2006) ‘Women, Money and the Bank’. Paper presented to the Financial Literacy, Banking and Identity Conference, RMIT University, Melbourne, 25-26 October

3 Responses to “Manage This: income management is a feminist issue”
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  1. […] You can read F Collective member Jane Bullen’s further reflections on why income management is a feminist issue here. […]

  2. […]  A few weeks ago, the F Collective and WEL co-hosted the forum ‘Manage This: Women’s Voices on Income Management’. […]

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