As income management is implemented in South Australia's APY Aboriginal Lands, signs are emerging that it's creating a gender divide, SBS reporter Karen Ashford reports.
(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)
The Kaltjiti store has just opened for afternoon trade and it's busy with kids buying cool drinks and women stocking up on supplies like bread, milk and bananas.
The women SBS approached were reluctant to be interviewed, but said privately that they found it hard to get by on welfare because of the high cost of food.
One of a group of six women said she had just signed up to voluntary income management the previous day, while the others said they wanted to see how it worked before deciding what to do.
People opting for voluntary management have 50 per cent of their welfare payments set aside for necessities.
But it's not all voluntary - people assessed by social workers are vulnerable to financial crisis or those referred for income management by state child protection authorities have seventy per cent of their payments managed by the government.
Income management works in two ways.
Welfare agency Centrelink can be asked to make payments for regular expenses like rent and bills, and secondly, money can be allocated to an account operated by a Basics Card which restricts spending to essential items such as food, petrol and health needs at participating stores.
The federal government has had teams of advisers visiting the APY Lands to explain the scheme, and has established a website which includes a talking information page for those who have difficulties reading.
"If someone you know is chosen to be on income management and they are not happy with the decision they can talk about it with Centrelink or their state child protection worker to find out why the decision was made or try to change the arrangement."
The NPY Women's Council is an organisation representing indigenous women in the cross border region of South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
It supports the income management strategy.
Kim McCrae heads its tjungu team which advocates for some of the most vulnerable women on the Lands - those with disabilities.
"When there are issues around money management, sometimes it's not because a person can't add up the sums, it's because of a family obligation that they have, to share. So they might share to the extent of all their money goes to other people, and that will be done despite the fact that they're cognitively able to make a decision, (but) they still feel a really, really strong obligation to share, and may leave themselves in a position that they have no money for food."
The practice of pressuring family members for money is known as humbugging, and Ms McCrae says people with disabilities are easy targets, often putting money for children and elderly relatives ahead of their own needs.
The Council's Coordinator Andrea Mason believes women are looking to income management and financial education as a means of fending off excessive family demands.
"Our members have been very consistent in wanting income management particularly to be a support to those who are vulnerable, particularly around those who because of their status or frailty or disability in community where they are a target by other members of the family. So it's really around that lifestyle of living from day to day and that support which we see people are asking for that's around financial management and budgeting."
But not all Anangu, or Aboriginal people, welcome the scheme.
Rex Tjami is a director on the APY Council and a leader in the community of Mimili.
He's detecting rumblings of dissatisfaction and thinks some Anangu are unhappy with the change, and how the government has imposed it.
"Anangu themselves they really frustrated and they follow one thing then it stops then another thing comes in, so really Anangu finding it really hard. I think income management has started a couple of weeks now and we still get, like we are still climbing on the ladder to know these things, how to manage things and our culture, it's between culture and something else governments comes in so we're trying to work it out to make it better, to work either way. So it's really hard for Anangu to start overnight or next day to catch up with what this means and what it's meant to be doing to us."
APY General Manager Richard Preece has worked in a number of indigenous communities in the Top End and has found people don't like constant change to their entitlements.
Mr Preece says it's essential when governments change the rules that they talk with the community up front, to ensure people understand what's happening and why, and become willing participants in the agenda.
He says if consultation is inadequate, communities won't support new initiatives and the government will waste a lot of money.
"One of the rules to remember in the consultation process is that just because people are poor it doesn't mean they are dumb. Just because their culture's different doesn't mean they're silly. People are smart, they understand government well, they know what the game is, but we've got to make sure people fully understand what the agenda is about, why it's changing if it is changing and make sure that they're there with us when these decisions are made."
Mr Preece says it's important that consultation takes gender into account, as men and women on the Lands can have very different views about financial priorities.
He says there are early signs that voluntary income management is being well received with department of Families, Communities and Indigenous Affairs reporting that almost 100 of the region's 2,500 residents have signed up since the scheme's launch on October the first.
The department expects about 500 people will eventually take part, most voluntarily.
But Mr Preece says there are also signs of a gender divide, with men less supportive of income management than women.
"I'm told the take up rate has been quite strong on the voluntary implementation of it. Some men have said to me that they don't like it very much and I think it's understandable that anybody doesn't like government controlling their lives, and this is a bit in that direction. But on the other hand it gives some people more power over the control of the money they receive. I'm not trying to suggest that somehow men don't value the same things that women do, but I think the fact that women are confronted every day with looking after kids means their agenda is quite different to men who might be going out to work and trying to earn a living."
Mr Preece is optimistic that income management will bring benefits to the Lands, but says it too soon to judge.
The NPY Women's Council's Andrea Mason agrees, provided consultation is effective and ongoing.
"The role of interpreters in being able to really hear people's instructions is pretty important. I guess the moving of people onto income management that has to be a process of assessment. So it's not just hearsay, it's talking to the individuals, it's talking to their family to see what their circumstances are. But it's been our experience that the members have been very encouraged with the benefit that does come through income management."