Current penalties for non-immunisation are an imposing threat to the poor but completely fail to address shockingly low rates of vaccination in wealthy communities.
Since 2014, parents who do not vaccinate their kids lose eligibility for Family Tax Benefit A. This was a highly popular policy and supported by both major parties.
Losing FTB A is a big deal for poor families. For example, FTB A makes up around $21,000 of the $39,000 of assistance to an unemployed single mum with three kids. So the most vulnerable members of the community stand to lose around 54 per cent of their income.
But if you want to find immunisation shirkers, you look to the wealthy. Vaccination rates are inversely correlated with income. The wealthiest suburbs in Sydney like Mosman and Bondi have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the country. These people don’t care about FTB A, because they don’t receive it.
The obvious solution is to apply painful income disincentives consistently across the community. The government should therefore confiscate 50% of the total disposable income of all Australian families who do not vaccinate their children, regardless of wealth.
So a family in Mosman with a household disposable income of $250,000 would be fined $125,000 each year. Assuming this family has at least one child aged under 18 for a total of 25 years, they would pay $3.125 million. This might sound harsh, but it is proportionate to the penalty on the poorest and most vulnerable in the community.
The public health arguments are identical for both. The case is in fact stronger for families in Mosman and Bondi than most other areas because herd immunity is more at risk there. Blue collar areas like Campbelltown, where our hypothetical single mum lives, have the nation’s best vaccination rates.
Perversely, a consistent income disincentive would be more controversial than the inconsistent one currently imposed. Perhaps the stated justification of public health is really only half the story. The other half is a conservative morality tale. It’s the idea that whereas market income is a right, social security is a privilege. It’s a charity service conditional on ‘deserving’ behaviour.
But for a social democrat the entitlement claims are surely the reverse. Poor kids have a right to a decent relative standard of living, but the wealthy do not have the right to all of their labor and investment income. The latter is inherent in the principle of progressive taxation.
We could argue competing fairness claims all day, but this is irrelevant to protecting kids from diseases. As Matt Bruenig has argued, those who promote punitive income-confiscating interventions love to target social security, but there is no coherent justification for distinguishing between income sources when promoting good behaviour. The notion that infectious diseases care about social dollars but not market dollars is obviously absurd.
A fifty percent income cut is a tough penalty. I thought it was on the harsh side, but society has spoken. The penalty must be applied to all – rich and poor alike.