Tuesday, 12 August 2008

We've got magic to do

Poverty is a lot like childbirth - you know it is going to hurt before it happens, but you'll never know how much until you experience it. -JK Rowling

I thought I'd start off my thoughts on the policy everyone is talking about, National's new DPB policy by quoting from the world's most famous DPB mum, JK Rowling. Btw if you haven't had a chance, please do go and read Rowling's speech at the Harvard commencement right now. Don't worry, I'll still be ranting when you are done.

I should preface my rant by saying that through luck and, yes through 'hard work,' I have never had the 'privilege' of having to going to WINZ cap in hand for a benefit. From all the second-hand accounts I've heard, not one person has said how easy and stress-free it was. In general the consensus seems to be that applying for and receiving a benefit is a heinous and demeaning process. I suppose there will be many in the blogosphere that would say the process is too easy given the large numbers on benefits. But I wonder how many of them have ever actually been through the process personally or know of people that have or have actually had to make ends meet on benefit.

As I have mentioned, some members of my extended family haven't been so lucky and indeed on the odd occasion when I was younger my immediate survived on a combination of welfare (back when the family benefit was paid), raiding kids' bank accounts and the odd under-the-table job to make ends meet when I was younger. I'm not saying this for sympathy, but more so to demonstrate that membership of the middle class, or for that matter the so called 'underclass', isn't always stable. Circumstances can change for the worse and sometimes as JK Rowling's story demonstrates they can change beyond your wildest imagination. And sure enough, according to the national party's figures most will be off the DPB within four years.

One of the 'dead rats' we have to swallow in order to enjoy the fruits of a capitalist economy is a certain level of structural unemployment in order to keep wages down and the labour market reasonably flexible. Some of my more socialist readership might say that we should go back to the days of government-backed full employment. Having been to North Korea where they practice such a policy, I can say that despite the pitfalls our system is far superior. But just because we are doing good doesn't mean we can't do better.

And perhaps the most pressing area where our economy needs to do better is how to accommodate raising our future generation of workers while at the same time ensuring that we get the most out of the skills and talents that our current generation have. Combining work with childcare is something that mothers of all levels of society struggle with whether they have a PhD or no formal qualifications at all. Even as recently as last Friday, Deborah Hill Cone who is hardly a poster girl for welfarism, was lamenting that part-time mothers first on the chopping blocks when economic times are hard. However the ones that don't have the luxury of a partner to provide back up when the kids are sick or the belt needs to be tightened, the struggle to maintain paid work with childcare responsibilities becomes even harder.

So I am curious to know where exactly these DPB recipients will work. Is there a sudden glut of employers who need part-time workers only during school-terms that thousands of New Zealand women have been previously unaware of? How will those coming off the DPB be supported to ensure that the gains of their new-found employment aren't eaten up by childcare and transportation costs?

Because much as we all like to talk to about work magically lifting people out of poverty (and I don't dispute that it does), we can't conjure up work that doesn't exist. But we can legislate for more family-friendly workplaces that employers seem so unwilling to offer and we can have a discussion on how to support and if necessary re-skill those on welfare back into the workforce. Those are subjects that are worth us muggles exploring further.


Julie said...

Magic indeed. For a start won't we need more magical elves (sometimes called bureaucrats) to do all this prodding (sometimes called intimidating and harassing) towards paid employment?

And thanks for the reminder about Rowling, I'd quite forgotten about her. Proof for sure that beneficiaries aren't stupid lazy people.

Hugh said...

Some of my more socialist readership might say that we should go back to the days of government-backed full employment. Having been to North Korea where they practice such a policy, I can say that despite the pitfalls our system is far superior.

That's a terrible strawman. The idea that anybody advocating socialism wants to emulate North Korea is the sort of rhetoric I'd expect from John Key and his cronies, but I've got to say I'm unpleasantly surprised to see it repeated here.

I realise that this is peripheral to the main point of your post, which incidentally I agree with (which in turn only makes this remark more annoying), but I think if you're going to dismiss the very idea of full employment as impractical you need to do so a bit more thoughtfully than raising the North Korean comparison.

The ex-expat said...

I don't think full employment is unattainable goal, I just don't think it should be the state-sanctioned make-work sort of stuff that work for the benefit (which is the logical conclusion of this policy) would bring about. It is horrible and does lead to people being be paid by the state to stand around doing nothing.