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Investigating criminalisation of poverty

Dr Scarlet Wilcock
School of Law

Understanding Government responses to vulnerable welfare recipients

While helping welfare recipients navigate the law, lecturer Dr Scarlet Wilcock noticed how measures designed to target so-called welfare cheats were often making life harder for people just trying to make ends meet, especially single parents. She also noticed a lack of scholarly work in the area of social security fraud and compliance and its impact on vulnerable people and decided she could help fill the gap.

“I’ve worked as a solicitor and volunteer in this area advocating for social security recipients. I’ve also been a welfare recipient as a student. It made sense for me to do research in this area and I feel it’s an area that’s under-researched.”

Dr Wilcock is collaborating with the National Social Security Rights Network (NSSRN), which represents community legal centres across Australia, to assess the relationship between family violence and social security compliance and fraud. The project involves the analysis of case files from the Welfare Rights Centre, Sydney, where Dr Wilcock began volunteering in 2009 and is now a board member.

“We’re looking at Centrelink’s responses to victims of domestic violence and how the response may alleviate or exacerbate the impact of domestic violence,” she says, noting that domestic violence victims are predominantly women and children.

“There’s not a lot of research out there about what the push to be tough on so-called welfare cheats means for women who are living in poverty or are victims of domestic violence.”

The misuse of the fraud reporting system is one line of investigation for Dr Wilcock.

“Abusers might bully women into staying by threatening to report them for welfare fraud, whether the allegation is true or not. If you’re living close to the poverty line and worried about becoming homeless, such threats are very powerful.

“The consequences of being prosecuted for minor and non-violent crimes can have devastating consequences for people also.”

The goal for Dr Wilcock is to produce work that can inform strategies to improve how the government responds to extremely vulnerable welfare recipients. She is also seeking to produce work that can clarify what’s working and what’s not.

Her doctoral thesis, for example, investigated and subsequently clarified that a push within Centrelink to focus on serious and intentional cases of fraud instead of minor or unintentional ones to fulfil KPIs had led to a change for the better.

“That research got positive feedback. People, including those within the government, were pleased to see independently produced research and evidence that the initiative, the culture shift, had worked and was worthwhile.”