AROUND the turn of the 5th century, St Augustine of Hippo sought to delineate the parameters of righteous giving.
Christians, the early father of the church wrote, should target their charity first to the just and, when giving to sinners, should take care not to support the sin.
Augustine famously prayed: “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet”, so you might expect his views on sin to have been somewhat flexible.
Not so, though, when it came to his views on some potential recipients of Christian charity.
Do not give to gladiators, fortune-tellers, prostitutes or actors, Augustine exhorted, for it might encourage them in their “evil arts”.
The moral status of gladiators may no longer be a pressing concern, but distinctions between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor still play out in 21st-century debates.
You can dress it up as being about all kinds of other things, but at heart such a scheme is designed to punish those who are not behaving as the rest of society would like them to. As long as they are at the bottom of the income scale, of course.
Some opponents of the proposal have suggested we test politicians as well, but does that cast the net wide enough? If Hollywood movies are any guide, surely we should be testing stockbrokers, whose higher incomes offer access to a cornucopia of mind-altering substances.
If you think I am unfairly stigmatising that profession, you might perhaps wonder why it is apparently acceptable to stigmatise anybody who finds themselves in need of welfare support.
The government argues testing would have the dual benefits of addressing concerns about public money being used to purchase illegal substances, while also helping unemployed people with drug problems access treatment and find work.
It is true welfare is public money, but if that’s the argument, perhaps we should be testing recipients of research grants or university professors.
Could the scheme deliver on the second aim?
The last time the proposal was floated, back in 2017, then Social Services Minister Christian Porter told the ABC there was “lots of evidence” mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients could help people stop using drugs and get a job.
“Of six reports put forward by Mr Porter’s office in defence of his claim, only two specifically relate to drug testing of welfare recipients and both strongly reject it as a viable strategy,” they concluded.
The other four related to drug treatment of offenders in the criminal justice system.
“Experts say that, rather than lots of evidence, there is no evidence, here or overseas, to show that mandatory testing will help unemployed drug addicts receive treatment and find jobs,” the fact checkers went on.
A drug testing program in New Zealand has had less than stellar results, according to the Guardian.
Of 47 115 welfare recipients tested in 2017–18, only 170 (or 0.3%) recorded a positive result for drugs.
Medical and addiction experts have generally not greeted the government’s proposal with enthusiasm.
The Australian Medical Associaton’s Federal Councillor and Chair of the Ethics and Medico-Legal Committee, Dr Christopher Moy, for example, described Australia’s proposed foray into mandatory drug testing as “arse-up policy”, questioning the costs involved and the likely benefits.
“Wouldn’t it be much better to actually put those resources into drug and alcohol services, and in fact to let us do the identification without all the witch hunt that may occur with this, so that we can actually get them into services and get it treated,” he said.
Indeed. Welfare payments are not charity, but part of our social contract. Those who receive them are entitled to the same dignity and autonomy in personal decision making as the rest of us.
If we really want to address social disadvantage, we need strategies that inspire and empower people to make the best of their lives, not ones that humiliate and belittle them.
St Augustine may have thought it was acceptable to deem the gladiators and fortune-tellers unworthy of support. We can do better.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.