Dr Eve Vincent
In early December 2019, a Bill was introduced before the Senate which would extend the existing trials of the Cashless Debit Card (CDC) until 30 June 2021. The Bill would also remove the cap on the number of CDC trial participants and transition BasicsCard holders in the Northern Territory and Cape York on to the CDC. With this expansion, a total of over 30,000 people will be subject to the CDC. This article briefly introduces my recent anthropological research into people’s experiences of the CDC in the first trial site of Ceduna, South Australia. My focus on ‘lived experiences’ reveals the impact of the card on individuals’ sense of worth and belonging, as well as the possibility of circumventing the card, and the reasons for divergent perspectives on the CDC.
The CDC was introduced in 2016 with the stated goals of reducing welfare recipients’ spending on alcohol, gambling and illegal drugs, decreasing violence and encouraging ‘socially responsible behaviour’. It pursued these goals by quarantining 80% of income support payments, for those of working age, on to a Visa debt card that is barred from purchasing alcohol and gambling products. The CDC has attracted particular scrutiny for its disproportionate application to Indigenous people. In Ceduna, around 75% of those subject to the CDC are Indigenous.
Evaluations of the CDC have produced mixed results. The 2017 ORIMA evaluation described positive impacts on self-reported behaviour change, but was criticised on the grounds that results may have been influenced by participants’ reluctance to admit to engaging in drinking or illicit drug use. A 2018 ANAO report stated that ‘it is difficult to ascertain ‘whether or not there had been a reduction in social harm’ as a result of the CDC’s introduction’.
I was not engaged in evaluation of the card’s policy success of failure. My research has a broader focus, in attempting to understand the lived experiences of being on the CDC. As well as seeking to understand and analyse these experiences, my research hopes to denaturalise the category of ‘welfare recipient,’ which defines people narrowly by their non-participation in waged work. I have undertaken over three months of fieldwork in Ceduna since mid-2017, spending time with local community members and talking with over 80 people about their experiences, in both in-depth interviews and more focused, short-form discussions about the card. Some of the themes of the research are presented below.
Shame and stigma
Although the ORIMA evaluation showed that only 4% of all participants reported feeling shame or stigma associated with the card, I contend that these experiences are more complex and context-specific. In Ceduna, many research participants shared their perspective on finding the card an ‘insult’, of feeling ‘targeted’, of involvement in the trial being ‘degrading’ and of being regarded as lesser by those implementing the card trial (‘they think we’re rubbish’). Some participants said that the stigma of the card had lessened over time. However, experiences of shame remain acute for many. Participants experienced shame when their cards were declined, but also in a more general sense when they felt that in the eyes of others, they belonged to an inferior social category. One Aboriginal interviewee put it like this:
I just feel like I’m another person to blokes that’s got regular job, and me, pulling the grey card out in front of them, that’s embarrassing. ‘Oh, he’s on the Indue card’, you know. So anyway…Yeah, you get your little smirks and stuff like that around the place, you know. Fellas thinking, ‘What are you on the Indue card for?’ Ask the government that! You know. They’ve given us Indue cards because they’ve taken away our rights, simple as that.
Other research participants experienced no shame, for reasons that are deeply cultural. Others still defiantly refused to feel shame.
Exemptions and quarantining variations
New legislation introduced in 2019, provides for a process through which trial participants can apply to be exempt from the CDC. During the period of my research, trial participants were able to apply to a local Community Panel to vary the split of quarantined and available monies up to a 50/50 split (rather than 80/20). Many of my research participants expressed that this application process involved intrusion on their privacy. As one participant said:
There’s a lot of people that won’t go because there’s personal problems is their personal problems. They do not have to tell a panel why they are stressed out! That is not the panel’s or the government’s business!’
Prior to the 2019 legislation, a ‘Wellbeing Exemption’ clause might be used to exit the trial. FOI data showed that out of 28 total exemptions granted under this clause in Ceduna up until 31 August 2018, only 5 were granted to Indigenous people.
Drug and alcohol use
Many participants were sceptical about the card’s impact on alcohol and drug use, as well as other behaviour. They shared stories of people ‘getting around’ the card. One of my research participants had bravely intervened in the assault of senior Aboriginal people, who was likely being robbed in order to get access to cash. Others had resold items or engaged in other exchanges with non-participants. One participant highlighted the lack of drug and alcohol rehabilitation options in the community, where the closest facility is almost 500 km away, as the biggest barrier to overcoming dependency. Another participant pointed to the broader structural context of the issue:
They made the alcohol. And it never stops. You can’t stop people from drinking…. We’ve lost our vision. A card cannot give vision to the community.
I encountered many positive and ambivalent views about the CDC in the Ceduna community. Some participants relayed that the card made it easier to organise their finances and save. I argue that those who liked the card tended to focus on immediate familial issues and everyday practicalities. Critics of the card, mon the other hand, were often individuals attuned to broader colonial, racial and social injustices. Being on the card, one Pitjantjatjara man perceived, was like being ‘taken back’, ‘to the days when old people were given a pinch of tea, some sugar and salted beef’. Far from being self-interested in acquiring personal access to prohibited items, critics of the card were concerned with the broader impact on the community in its historical and social context.
Finally, I have recently collaborated with geographer Francis Markham and Development Studies expert Elise Klein to explore the relationship between the first two CDC trials and mobility. We are concerned that the CDC is possibly contributing to population loss in the areas where it has been introduced, accelerating an existing pattern of Indigenous population decline in remote areas. Please contact me if you would like a copy of this research – firstname.lastname@example.org
I found many Ceduna locals keen to ‘put our yarn on it’ and be listened to in ongoing debates about the expansion of the card. While some people like aspects of the CDC, many research participants clearly articulated their understanding and experience of the CDC as a punitive and unfair intervention into lives already characterised by hardship. These experiences show that the impacts of the card are not fully captured by government-commissioned evaluations. The voices of those affected by this radical policy experiment must be front and centre in any future debates.
Thanks to Anastasia Radievska for her assistance in putting together this article.
 Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Income Management to Cashless Debit Card Transition) Bill 2019
 Vincent E ,Lived Experiences of the Cashless Debit Card Trial, Ceduna, South Australia, Working Paper 129/2019, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Australian National University, Canberra.
 Social Security (Administration) Amendment (Income Management and Cashless Welfare) Act 2019
 Vincent E, Markham F, Klein E. “Moved on”? An exploratory study of the Cashless Debit Card and Indigenous mobility. Australian Journal of Social Issues. 2019, 1–13