Gordon Campbell on free contraception for the beneficiary poor

If one can be grateful for small mercies, at least young women on benefits will not be forced into (a) having compulsory contraceptive implants fitted into their arms or( b) having IUDs installed as a pre-condition for receiving state support for their children – as was originally mooted by the Welfare Working Group on social welfare reform. Instead, such measures will only be an option, according to Social Welfare Minister Paula Bennett – and will not (presumably) be put forward by front line staff as an option that beneficiaries cannot refuse.

Bennett was at pains yesterday to present this mooted $1 million contraceptive package as being a voluntary form of assistance, rather than a tool of social engineering. Cost, she said, can be a barrier to effective contraception for some. (Despite Pharmac’s subsidies for some forms of contraception that is still the case, given the cost of going to the doctor.) Yet by making fully subsidized long term implants and IUDs available for free only to beneficiary mothers and their teenage daughters, the policy still carries a stench of eugenics about it. If cost really is the rationale, then these family planning methods should be being made available for free to all women on low incomes, whatever their occupational status. Otherwise, the state is making a distinction between the virtuous working poor and the poor on benefits, who are being regarded as irresponsible and/or morally degenerate. From October, this contraceptive assistance will be offered to all women on benefits, and their daughters aged 16 to 19.

That’s outrageous. Think about it. Most women are on the DPB due to marital or relationship breakdown, leaving them – usually – with the prime custodial care of the children from those relationships. In response, Bennett is offering to pay to insert IUDs or contraceptive implants in those women and in their teenage daughters. That is pretty insulting. From October, the state intends to treat all such women – most of whom are on a benefit not by choice but through divorce and relationship breakups – as if they and their children are sexually irresponsible. In this respect at least, the government’s view of beneficiaries seems to belong to the 19th century. It’s all a bit like the world of Nancy in Oliver Twist:

When such as I, who have no certain roof but the coffin-lid, and no friend in sickness or death but the hospital nurse, set our rotten hearts on any man, and let him fill the place that has been a blank through all our wretched lives, who can hope to cure us? Pity us, lady—pity us for having only one feeling of the woman left and for having that turned, by a heavy judgment, from a comfort and a pride into a new means of violence and suffering.

Is Paula Bennett being just as keen to offer women on the DPB financial help say, to retrain and/or carry out university study? Not so much. In the recent past, she has cut the same Training Incentive Allowance for solo parents that she personally benefited from whilst she was on a benefit – and she may now be reconsidering the wisdom of that move.

Given the potential for WINZ staff to cross the borderline and pressure beneficiaries into compliance, Bennett should be stressing that frontline staff will be given explicit instructions on this point of the voluntary nature of contraception – and that any pressure would be regarded as intolerable, and would have career repercussions for staff found to have abused their powers in this area. As Green Party Co-Leader Metiria Turei said on RNZ this morning, the state has no role in telling women what contraception they should and/or must use, simply because such women are temporarily in need of financial support from the state.

Also, as has been said many times before, the spectre of teen mothers is one that is easily overblown. Of all women on the DPB there is a higher percentage of women in the 55-64 age group than those aged 18-19 years of age. Those teen mothers may stay on the DPB relatively longer, but the stereotype – the ‘breeding for a career’ teen mother –is a tiny element within a small sub-group within a subset of the beneficiary numbers. The approach is largely to be a punitive one, regardless:

The reforms include a requirement for those who have another child while on a benefit to look for work when that baby is 1, rather than wait until he or she is 5.

Is this approach likely to stop the second child, or subsequent children, being born? Or is it merely likely to put the care of the first child at risk? I think we already know the answer to that one.

Welfare reform

The issue of contraception tended to over-shadow the other announcements yesterday on the first stage of the government’s welfare reform. The measures announced will cost $287.5 million overall over four years – the full package will cost $520 million – and are expected to save $1 billion over the same period – although Bennett has made it clear that the savings estimates are a ‘best guess’ figure only. That is putting it mildly. Over recent decades, the swings of the business cycle has been the main determinant of how many people go on the welfare rolls – and by comparison the eligibility rules for getting benefits, or the mindset of the recipients are virtually irrelevant. So, since the economy is expected to slowly improve over the next four years, it will be this enhanced economic activity – and not welfare reform – that will be the reason why the beneficiary numbers will decline.

The rough breakdown is as follows:

The first phase of the changes is expected to cost $287.5 million over four years. It includes $148 million to be spent on budgeting and parenting courses, with youth beneficiaries, aged 16 to 17, getting incentives of up to $30 per week for taking the courses. It also provides up to $64 million going to private providers of youth services.

In any welfare-to-work process, the provision of quality, affordable childcare is an essential ingredient. Within that $287.5 million, some $80 million has been earmarked for childcare and early childhood assistance. At the receiving end, this will take the form of a $6 an hour childcare subsidy – which Bennett presented as being a rate, when taken alongside other existing forms of childcare subsidy, as adequate to meet the cost of childcare for beneficiaries being required to work full or part time. This is very arguable – especially when there will be no inflation adjustment in early childhood provisions.

Assistance payments would provide young parents with up to $6 an hour for 50 hours a week for their children to attend approved early childhood education services. That’s on top of funding for the 1155 extra early-childhood education places needed to meet the needs of parents returning to work or study.

However, Prime Minister John Key said although there would not be cuts to early childhood provisions for working parents, there would be minor changes. “Those changes could result, at the margins, in some people getting not necessarily less funding over time but not necessarily more as the general inflation rate increases.

In answer to a further question from Scoop, Bennett gave assurances that the reforms would not result in the children of beneficiaries being pushed into the kind of low quality childcare that has typified much of the welfare to work process in the United States. Time will tell whether Bennett’s confidence is well placed on that score.