On yesterday’s welfare reform announcements

We’ve all become more politically literate the hard way over the last couple of decades. The words “efficient” and “greater efficiency” for instance, has been forced into service so many times that’s they’re now a genuine alarm signal – a crutch for politicians seeking to replace a current public service with a shoddy inferior version that will cost less to provide. In similar vein, yesterday’s announcement of the government’s next stage of welfare reform was stacked, top to bottom, with a series of buzz words, tortured statistics and bogus statistics.

My favourite interlude was probably the moment when Social Development Minister Paula Bennett took off on a rhetorical flight and depicted the welfare state as something created in 1935 and active in the 1960s, but which now had to be made so, so modern – “so that it’s ready for 2012, and going forward”. Social mores have changed, Bennett rhapsodized, so have peoples’ needs, so has technology – “and the government felt an obligation to keep up with that”. All this being a preface to a get-meaner set of attitudes to force beneficiaries into work (complete with $10 rewards for the deserving poor) that comes straight out of the 19th century.

Underpinning the reforms, Bennett explained, was ‘an investment approach’ – more details promised next year – “that will change long term, who we work with, and who we spend money on”. [Except unlike its sympathetic stance to finance company speculators, the government won’t be bailing out these investments, and is intent on making it tougher this time for the people concerned to get their money.]

The reforms will be brought into effect in stages.

From July, up to 14,000 teenagers aged 16 and 17 who are not in education, work or training and teen parents aged 16 to 18 will be coupled with a private provider to help them with budgeting courses, parenting courses, training or job-hunting. Their basic costs such as rent and power will be paid by the state, and they will have a payment card for living costs that can be monitored to ensure they do not buy alcohol or cigarettes. They will receive an allowance of up to $50 a week, but this can increase by $10 a week for a good attendance record at school or for completing a budgeting or parenting course…..

From October, the 30,000 people on the domestic purposes, widow’s or woman-alone benefits will have to be work-tested for part-time employment once their youngest child turns 5, and for full-time roles when their youngest child turns 14. Having an extra child while on a benefit will only bring a 12-month reprieve from these obligations – a disincentive to having more children.

Bennett and Prime Minister John Key both cited the large numbers of people on benefits as a sign that the current welfare system isn’t working. In Key’s opinion, the current welfare system is “on a pathway, in my view, to not being economically sustainable”. Well, it doesn’t take a vast institutional memory to refute the “not economically sustainable” claim. Less than ten years ago, a booming economy had reduced beneficiary numbers to historical lows. Meaning: when the economy is even reasonably healthy, welfare is eminently affordable. When it isn’t, the jobs don’t exist to make welfare reform socially sustainable.

Reason being, welfare is not the root cause of the problem. Blaming the welfare system for the current existence of poverty is like seeing the incidence of Third World diseases in this country, and blaming it on the existence of hospitals. Similarly, the social safety net does not cause people to live in poverty and be out of work – it is an effect, not a cause. And the current state of the welfare rolls is precisely what you would expect to find when the jobs market is barely off its sick bed after the global recession.

The current (and temporary) existence of large numbers on welfare is what people pay their taxes for: for help in time of need, a need which can happen to anyone. Instead, the current dire economic situation is being used as a pretext to shrink the social safety net, for reasons that have little to do with social need, or the vagaries of the business cycle. It has more to do with an ideology: Social Darwinism, thinly disguised as compassionate conservatism.

All Key has to do if he wants to reduce the reliance on welfare is to fulfil his side of the social contract – and manage the economy in a way that returns the economy to health and growth. Yet during yesterday’s announcement though, there was absolutely no sign of Key accepting any liability for that role – accountability, it seems, is only for those at the bottom of the heap. The injustice of this ‘blame the victim’ approach came gift wrapped in yesterday’s announcement with the usual half truths and bogus statistics.

For example: according to Bennett, there were no benefit cuts in yesterday’s package. Yet once these DPB reforms kick in later this year, a woman currently on the DPB will be work tested for full time work once her youngest child turns 14 – and if she doesn’t find a job, she will be moved to a job seeker allowance that pays less money. Technically, no benefit has been cut – but try telling the theological difference to someone who has just been forcibly moved from one benefit to a different benefit that entails a cut in income.

And if yesterday’s package was about incentives and rewards, what kind of signal about the value of parenting and family life is being sent when a solo parent (almost invariably it is a woman) who raises a child on their own, and is then told to go out and get a “real job” as soon as her youngest child turns 14. I know a lot of low income, two parent families have it hard too – but is that a good reason for making it even harder for people who are raising kids on their own? Or was all that stuff about the value of mothering and family life and being there for your kids mere lip service all along? Or is parenting a value that’s you know, not economically sustainable?

That brings me to the last statistic that has been tortured into service here. Yesterday, Bennett claimed that “the average duration on the DPB is 7 to 10 years”. Wow. Most of the public will take that as Bennett intended, as confirmation that hey, the DPB is Easy Street. They would be being willfully misled. Frankly, if she wants to get all modern and 2012 on us, Bennett has to square that claim with her own department’s latest published benefit statistics, for the quarter ended December 2011. Take a look at them here.

They show that two thirds of those currently raising dependent children on the DPB (66.7% of all recipients) are receiving this benefit for a relatively brief period, of between 12 months and four years. The number receiving the DPB for between four and ten years is less than a quarter (23.7%) of recipients. Less than one in ten recipients are on the DPB for ten years or more. In other words for the vast majority, the system isn’t broken, and the DPB is functioning exactly as it is intended to do – to provide support for a relatively brief period to women left with the care of children after a marital split or relationship breakdown, or when their partner has been violent and abusive.

As for the other stereotypes about the DPB… over half of the recipients are aged between 25 and 39, and 77.7% fall into the category of those aged 25-54. To repeat: this benefit exists to provide an income to mature women and their children in the wake of a relationship breakdown. Despite all the tabloid bullshit about teen mothers on the DPB, a bigger proportion of the people on the DPB are aged 55-64 (4.5%) than the paltry figure of 3% of recipients aged 18-19.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that we are forcing people off welfare at exactly the wrong point in the economic cycle – before the jobs have re-appeared, assuming they ever will. In the meantime, making people leave their children at home alone, while they chase after non-existent jobs is a recipe for misery, and for further social problems down the track.

After all, the task of raising children is hard enough for anyone. But when there is only parent to cope with the stress and loneliness and financial hardship that often accompanies a relationship breakdown involving children, it is much, much harder. Why as a society, do we show so little compassion for people in this situation, the vast majority of whom would have wanted to raise their children with a loving and non–abusive partner?

The fact that these miserable and miserly reform policies apparently enjoy wide public approval should be taken as a sign of how bitterly depressed New Zealand has become. We are being invited to turn on each other. If blame has to be levelled, it should be being directed at those politicians who are currently skiving off from their job of fostering an economic climate in which real work opportunities at decent pay actually exist. Because if you want to enforce responsibility on those at the bottom, maybe there should be a lot more responsibility being shouldered by those at the top.


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