Robodebt scheme: Education alone is not a guarantee of safety

The suicide case of a 22-year-old Australian student overwhelmed by the massive burden of a Robodebt scheme, an automated debt recovery service employed by the Australian government, shows how education alone cannot guarantee financial security and stability.

Jarrad Madgwick was a gifted learner, naturally curious, and would volunteer his thoughts on solving problems. A respected school captain, champion swimmer, and a motivated student, Jarrad knew how to bring out the best in himself and sought to discover the best in others. By no stretch of the imagination could Jarrad seem out of sorts or someone who’s weighed down by societal pressure and stigma. 

Australia’s Robodebt scheme takes a nasty turn

However, behind closed doors, he was a victim of unemployment, systemic bullying, extreme poverty, and a seemingly beneficial welfare scheme called the Robodebt scheme, which to a large extent, robbed him of his chances at success and ultimately resulted in him taking his own life. Days before Jarrad committed suicide, he checked his welfare account only to learn about the unpaid student debt of A$2000 to the government. While he was desperately trying to land a job and make his ends meet, all he expected from the country’s faulty welfare system was some sort of support.

According to his mother, Jarrad came across this financial shock when he was at his lowest point in life. Since there was no way to repay the proposed debt, Jarrad chose to give up on his life. He was, what many believed, a victim of a defective government scheme, which begged the question of how a system the government insists it thought was legitimate until very recently could go on so long despite repeated red flags.

How welfare pushed political propaganda

The Robodebt scheme’s goal was relatively straightforward by definition—get the overpayments settled and save public welfare money. At a time when over A$180 billion was spent on welfare and social security, this came as a welcome move and showed impressive results in the initial few years. However, it soon became apparent that the automated decisions were controversial more often than not. 

It tended to suggest that people with unsteady income were eligible for far less money than they actually were. The debt-laden consumers were asked to find evidence to dispute the receipts, which only existed on calculations based on erroneous figures in the first place. The government also made it much harder to claim the welfare amount, receive the entitled money, and controlled how recipients chose to spend it. 

The human toll of the political debacle

As critics claim, the Robodebt scheme only managed to victimize the already poor and vulnerable class of the society through the poor use of technology. Like Jarrad Madgwick, many others suffered at the hands of political foundering. Katherine Prygodicz, a middle-aged school teacher, was baffled by the late-night calls demanding her to return the supposed money she owed to the government. While she ignored the calls initially, it was only months later that she realized the problem’s gravity. 

Her tax returns were seized, and her bank account statements showed unexplained debits as the Robodebt scheme officials wrongly accused her of misreporting the income. She, too, decided to challenge the claims that seemed way off the mark; however, she encountered much stigma and opposition.

After years of controversies and conflicts, it was apparent that the Robodebt scheme had caused more problems than it solved by inadequately managing the risks involved. In the end, the welfare state’s purpose was defeated entirely, which was to ensure that the poor have sufficient resources even in troubled times. Although Prime Minister Scott Morrison publicly apologized for this epic fiasco in June, the unfortunate human cost was paid, and thousands were left in hardship.

Leveraging tech for good

Rising economic uncertainties, especially in pandemic-ridden times, have made the welfare state more relevant than before. Across the globe, economic growth has plateaued out. This means that the government must do all it can in its capacity to lessen the gap of economic inequality by delivering welfare programs to the less advantaged, even if it means expanding their scope despite growing commitments and tightened budgets. And to do that successfully, leveraging technology can ensure the welfare benefits spread to the masses.

Automated workflows can ensure that the processes supporting social welfare service delivery are intuitive and straightforward and provide a transparent approach with minimal manual intervention. The governments must formulate and implement beneficiary-focussed interventions using technology to ensure a simplified, portable, universal, and easily accessible system, thus creating more equitable societies

Unprecedented technological capabilities coupled with limitless human creativity, have given us tremendous power to challenge complex problems concerning welfare, healthcare, education, and the environment. Our job is to harness this extraordinary potential and bring about a meaningful change