Gordon Campbell on the National v Labour family support packages

Too bad that poverty can bring out the worst in people. Especially at times, among politicians well-fed, well-housed and amply rewarded by the same state that they’re prone to decry when it offers assistance to individuals and families who are less comfortably situated. Unfortunately, some of the political rhetoric that has surrounded the competing packages on income support and child poverty put out by Labour and National has been particularly mean-minded…

Can – for instance – Finance Minister Steven Joyce really think that Labour’s offer to help families with their winter power bills would amount to the state dictating that it knows best how people should spend their money? Yikes. And does Act really think that lending assistance to families to give children a better start in life is the same thing as paying people to have babies?

Apparently so. In its package, one of the ways Labour has proposed to relieve child poverty is via a $60 a week assistance to all families during the first year after paid parental leave has been taken, with assistance extending to three years for families on low incomes. Act’s new deputy leader Beth Houlbrooke has decried this suggestion and labelled it a baby bonus:

Labour’s baby bonus could extend the misery of child poverty and even child abuse,” she said in a Facebook post on Wednesday. “The fact is, parents who cannot afford to have children should not be having them. ACT believes in personal responsibility, meaning we stand with the majority of parents who wait and save before having children.”

Right. Such comments seem to be based on those hoary old right wing stereotypes about the shiftless and teemingly fertile legions of the poor. To his credit, Opportunities Party leader Gareth Morgan has described Act’s comments as ‘ crap’ and cited evidence that people often move in and out of poverty due to unpredictable life events, and economic forces beyond their control. Moreover, Morgan added, some 30 to 40% of children are unplanned regardless of income – and society owes an obligation of care to them both on compassionate grounds, and by dint of rational economics:

“Regardless of how children ended up in poverty, the primary issue here is how do we improve their lives?” Mr Morgan said on Twitter. “As a civilised society we need to help these children and because not helping them costs us $8 billion a year, economically we need to help them.”

Obviously, it is the state – and not the market – that provides the social safety net. Any social assistance will therefore involve a level of state intrusion into the decision-making of welfare recipients, as Steven Joyce would realise if he ever spent time at a WINZ office. Ultimately, the family support packages that Labour and National are offering voters at this election need to be evaluated on two counts (a) the adequacy of the extra support being offered to those in need and (b) the hoops they have to jump through to get it.

Ironically – given Joyce’s comments in praise of self determination – the National package envisages the state being significantly quicker off the mark in clawing back assistance from those seeking to become self sufficient. Under the National package, support begins to abate once recipients hit the low threshold of $35,000. Under Labour, the threshold is a less miserly $42,000. Both packages, as the Child Poverty Action Group have pointed out, require the support to abate too steeply:

“CPAG would like Labour to also reduce the rate of abatement back to 20% instead of retaining National’s 25%. It is important not to increase disincentives to earn for low-income families,” says [CPAG’s economics spokesperson Susan] St John.

One of the problems with the fetish for targeting welfare assistance is that the compliance rules are often so complex that those in need either don’t realise the assistance exists, or cannot understand how to satisfy its rules and requirements. (The perceived need to streamline compliance for business rarely extends to those on welfare, where compliance rules have been encouraged to proliferate.) Currently, there is a thicket of compliance criteria for Working For Families, Paid Parental Leave, the In-Work Tax Credit, and the Parental Tax Credit. To streamline this process and make it more accessible, CPAG would have preferred to see Labour’s Best Start assistance incorporated within the existing WFF tax measures:

“CPAG suggests [that] Best Start would be better if it was simply a part of the WFF tax credit package instead of a separate and quite complex payment. It is a pity that the opportunity was not taken to address the cumbersome and discriminatory In Work Tax Credit in this package.”

Moreover, there were other steps not taken at all by either package to prevent the annual erosion of the support levels on offer, thanks to the inexorable rise in the cost of living:

“Currently there is no sign of a plan to regularly increase WFF and the threshold in line with inflation, including a link to the average wage – as is done for New Zealand Superannuation (NZ Super) every year. This is imperative, otherwise these potentially significant improvements to the system fall prey to the similar erosion that WFF has experienced since 2010.”

In sum, and as other commentators have already pointed out, voters are facing a narrowly construed choice in this area come September. Under both National and Labour, child poverty and income disparity are being addressed by (a) fiddling with the tax/abatement thresholds, and (b) via highly targeted mechanisms of undue complexity, all of this against the backdrop of a low wage economy. In that respect, Labour’s more generous support package – when taken together with its employment reform measures aimed at promoting a greater degree of collective bargaining for wage rises – is at least a step in the right direction.

Steve Gunn, Touring

Call the styles involved what you will – Appalachian finger picking, Piedmont style etc – but several terrific instrumentalists have followed in the wake of that 1960s & 1970s generation of guitarists that we associate with names like John Fahey, Peter Walker, Leo Kottke, Harry Taussig, Robbie Basho etc. For example : I’ve recommended William Tyler in this column many times before. Yet over the course of this weekend, New Zealanders have a chance to hear one of Tyler’s incredibly gifted contemporaries. Steve Gunn will be playing these venues over the next few days :

Fri, 14 July : Caroline Bar, Wellington
Sat, 15 Jul : Blue Smoke, Christchurch
Sun, 16 Jul : Sherwood, Queenstown

This NPR Tiny Desk concert is a good introduction to what Gunn can do :

And I love the delicate beauty of this live version of the “ Wildwood” track, originally on his Way Out Weather album.

Don’t miss him.