Thursday, 9 October 2008

suddenly alone

i've been meaning to write over the past couple of weeks about the effects of widowhood, particularly after a sudden death that happened a few weeks ago. we don't often spend much time thinking about how our lives will be if we suddenly lose a partner. there is the grief and the lonliness to cope with. but the practicalities are not quite so bad in our comfortable little corner of the world.

we know, after all, that the government will provide. not very well, but it will provide an income of sorts. and if we're lucky, there will be life insurance to cover some or all of the mortgage. if you're a woman brought up in nz, you'll be used to doing your own shopping. you're not likely to be fazed by the thought of having to manage your own bank account and pay the bills. there's no doubt that you'll feel the strain of being on your own, but it's likely that you'll mangae to get things done.

but what if you live in a country without a social welfare system? what if your partner dealt with the outside world, and you led a sheltered life, concerning yourself with domestic matters and with raising your children? what if you're partner didn't leave you with a source of income? what then?

hopefully, you have extended family to support you. hopefully one of your children will take you in and make you part of the household. hopefully they'll do that without making you feel like a burden. hopefully you don't have to ask for day-to-day spending money. being dependent on your partner is one thing. being dependent on your children or other family members is something else altogether. in the case of the former, it's a partnership. you provided something of value to the partnership and in return, your partner took care of your financial needs. this was your basic right, and you had no problem with asking for money when you needed it. but in the latter case, it's not quite the same.

it's not often that we take the time to appreciate the social security system we have in this country. in fact, i know someone who works for a budget advisory service, who did a speech to young mothers. she talked to them about being prepared to cope financially if their partner suddenly decided to leave and they had to cope with living on a benefit. she wasn't surprised that none of the women had prepared for such a situation. but it could happen to the best of us, and there are too many people who don't realise how difficult living on a benefit really is.

none of the parties in this year's campaign are talking about raising benefit levels. it's not a vote-winner, and the resulting backlash against beneficiaries is likely to be pretty nasty (the lazy bludgers, breeding-for-a-business, blowing the money on smokes and booze, etc etc ad nauseum). like when the abortion decision came out earlier this year, it's one of those topics people hope to avoid.

i know benefits are now inflation adjusted, and working for families (excluding the in-work payment) and other supplements are available to make things easier. but it would still be nice to have a rise in the minimum rate for all benefits. it would be nice to know that if there is a sudden catastrophe, there's one less source of grief.


Cactus Kate said...

Oh dear. While not meaning to trivialise the emotional state of the death of a partner, for goodness sake get a grip.

Many women have been single and independent for years and happily coped without assistance from the State. In fact many of us provide money for other families without having our own.

Financially it is not the end of the world.

stargazer said...

i guess you don't tie in to the fact that many women haven't been brought up that way. as i say, it's not the end of the world in this country because we have alot of state support as a backup. if we didn't, then many women would be in a pretty desperate situation. i'm just saying we should appreciate the fact that we provide this support and not be mean spirited about it. and raise the level as well.

Mikaere Curtis said...

none of the parties in this year's campaign are talking about raising benefit levels.

The Greens have an Income support policy that explicitly states that we will:

"Set benefit amounts at a level such that beneficiary income is sufficient for all basic needs."

And that means an increase, not a decrease.

Sure, it's not part of our core campaign messaging, but it is certainly in our policy.

Anna said...

Women usually look after babies. When they do so, they can't work. If they can't work they don't earn and their human capital depreciates, affecting their ability to be financially independent in future.

If women with babies want to work, they have to pay someone else to look after their babies. This costs money, affecting women's ability to make themselves financially independent in future.

These are incredibly simple economic truisms. I don't see what it is about them that commentators on the right don't grasp.

Hugh said...

Sure, it's not part of our core campaign messaging, but it is certainly in our policy.

And presumably its non-core status means it would be abandoned in a deal with National, while something more important to working mothers, like finding a way to comply with the Kyoto protocol, wouldn't?

homepaddock said...

Anna - most babies also have fathers who ought to take some responsibility for childcare or the payment of it, if the mothers choose to work.

This post seems to concentrate only on the state's role. All of us who have enough to spare should have insurance and/or investments to fall back on if tragedy strikes.

Not everyone can afford that so benefits should be available for those in need, but they will always be second best to income earned through paid work.

However, benefits are linked to average wages, so raising wages does help beneficiaries too.

Anna said...

HP - there is no way to compel a man to adequately support his wife and children while he lives with them. There is no law which makes a man share his earnings equitably with the people he lives with. And even if he does, this has no effect on the fact that a woman's earning power goes down as she spends time out of the workforce to have kids. Even if you exchange the roles (the man becomes the domestic worker and the women becomes the paid worker), the problem of dependence remains the same - it just affects someone different. Being a caregiver to children compromises your financial future.

When the second person in a house goes to work, there is a serious problem with diminishing returns to scale. Enabling a second adult to work carries costs that enabling the first adult to work does not (most noticably, childcare). Whether the man's or the woman's pay packet meets the cost of childcare, the whole household experiences the diminishing return, meaning it may not be worth the household's while for the second adult (usually mum) to work, particularly as the second job adds stress and the woman normally has to do the housework in addition to it.

Also, as far as I know, benefits are not statutorily linked to average wages (with the exception of NZ Superannuation). Any relationship to wages is in the hands of the govt of the day. Benefit rates began to decline as a proportion of wages in the 1970s, and took a nose-dive with the benefit cuts of 1991.

Hugh said...

However, benefits are linked to average wages, so raising wages does help beneficiaries too.

Really? This is the first I've heard of this mechanism - which Act is it derived from?

Mikaere Curtis said...

And presumably its non-core status means it would be abandoned in a deal with National, while something more important to working mothers, like finding a way to comply with the Kyoto protocol, wouldn't?

We've released our list of criteria for assessing the policies of both National and Labour. As you can see, item 6 deals with the commitment to dealing with child poverty.

So in that respect, beneficiary incomes are definitely on the table.

As for what policy wins we are able to garner, it all comes down to the number of MPs we have to bargain with.

homepaddock said...

Anaa & Hugh - I thought benefits were linked to average wages, but obviously I was wrong.

However, higher wages means a stronger ecnonomy which helps everyone regardless of where their income comes from.

Anna - I accept all you say about the difficulty - in terms of time and energy as well as money - when both parents work.

But I obviously have a much more positive experience of couples that you do. Those I know regard their income and assets as "ours" in practice, not just in law, rather than yours and mine regardless of who gets the pay packet.

That means those not in paid work don't see themselves as dependent on their husbands, the couples are interdependent.

But that's getting away from the point of the post which was about having something to live on if your partner/husband dies.

Being prepared so you can help yourself is a better option than having to rely on the state.

Perhaps I've misunderstood something, but I don't regard being dependent - on the state or a man - as the best option for women, or anyone else.

Please note I said option because I realise not everyone has a choice which is why there's a place for benefits.

Hugh said...


Thanks for the link, but I am not molified. Requiring a coalition party to 'deal' with child poverty is not a requirement to raise benefits. Many parties of the right feel that child poverty is best addressed through raising incomes by lowering taxes. The Greens' policy statement doesn't preclude this.

And even if it did, this is one policy of twelve. Weighing child poverty equally with genetic engineering is, IMO, utterly indefensible.

Anna said...

But the thing about sharing (interdependence) is that it's a form of dependence. I personally don't have a problem with dependence (it's a normal part of human existence), but problems arise when the dependence relationship is unequal, or there's a chance it may disappear, leaving someone vulnerable.

For example, my partner and I are interdependent. I earn the money he lives on. He fills the wood basket because I can't lift it. So while we rely on each other, one of us is dependent in a more significant way than the other. If our relationship ended for whatever reason, he'd be far worse off than me (as he's in the typically female position of caring for the kids). I can live without a full wood basket, but he can't live without access to cash. I would be able to support myself. He doesn't have a job right now, so would have to find one, and because he's spent time out of the workforce, he would expect to earn less than me. It might take him some years to make up the difference.

None of this has anything to do with the calibre of our relationship or whether or not we are nice people. Neither of us thinks less of the other for the kind of work each does. It's to do with the way we structure our society and the responsibility for caring for children. Our society regards some relationships of dependence as 'natural' and others (eg dependence on the state) as morally deleterious.

There are certain things you can't insure against, and (as far as I know) relationship break-ups is one of them. You could argue (and some people do) that couples should be kept together for economic reasons, but this to me seems a recipe for unhappiness.

I think the benefits of a strong economy are unevenly spread. You can't participate in the economy directly if you don't have a cash income (ie you're dependent on your husband's wage and he controls it). If you're in this position, any economic benefits you're likely to receive are through expanded provision of in-kind state services.

stargazer said...

Please note I said option because I realise not everyone has a choice which is why there's a place for benefits.

i think you need to go further than this. if you think there's a place for benefits, then you need also to seriously consider whether those benefits are at an adequate level. and if you find they're not, then you need to be lobbying the party you support to increase them. good luck with that, particularly for a right-wing party. i can't imagine you'd be too popular with that argument.

but as someone commented on some blog today (don't have time to find it), mr key was all about being a champion for the underclass earlier in the year. yet the current tax-cut package announced by national does nothing for beneficiaries.

hungrymama said...

It's not about whether I could manage without my partner - of course I could. It's about whether I could manage without my partner *immediately* and whether my presumably utterly traumatised children could immediately cope with me being suddenly less available - I'm pretty sure we couldn't actually.

homepaddock said...

Stargazer - tax packages aren't usually the way to help beneficiaries because they pay so little tax (relatively) in the first place.

Most benefits are temporary so while it is important people can manage on them while they need them, the best way to help everyone - on a benefit or not - is with a growing economy.

Anonymous said...

For some years there has (or had, until very recently) been an apparently strong, growing economy, yet benefits have remained below poverty level. Why?

The safety net is full of holes. When will this be remedied?

When will minimum wage be (at least closer to) a living wage, rather than a point at which some, most often women, will inevitably lose their health, for instance, to the struggle to improve their lives?

Rhetorically yours

Anna said...

HP - I don't think the argument that a growing economy helps everybody can be sustained. As Anon points out, it's done very little for beneficiaries over the last few years, and wages have declined massively in real terms; hence the fact that Working for Families has been needed to top up the incomes of low and middle group families to a level which is livable.

Education is not the answer to raising wages either. No matter how educated the overall population, someone still has to drive the buses and clean the hospitals. I am highly educated and have a good job, but can't support my family without WfF. Certain jobs (eg manufacturing) can and have been shipped offshore; but then they are done by other people in China or Indonesia working on wages too low to live on. At best, a highly educated workforce simply gives the ability to shift poverty onto some other unfortunates somewhere else.

The Employment Contracts Act was introduced to lower wages to promote economic growth. That's precisely the opposite effect to what you suggest ought to happen.

homepaddock said...

Anna - if a growing economy doesn't help does a static or shrinking one?

There is no single answer, but a growing economy is an important part of it.

So is better education - people who don't have the ability or desire to do a skilled job will still be better off and have more options if they're literate and numerate.

BTW - benefits aren't linked to wages but John Key said today that if National's in government they'll pass a law to maintain and inflation-index link them.

Anna said...

I didn't say that a static or shrinking economy is desirable - just that it doesn't follow that a growing one will be beneficial to everyone. In the case of the ECA, an attempt was made to produce economic growth by lowering the standard of living of some.

I'll certainly look up John Key's policy statement, but it does fly in the face of the last 20 years of National policy, which makes me wary of the extent of the Nat's commitment to it.

Anna said...

RE your education point HP - education boosts quality of life in ways which are not related to employment (and is important for that and other reasons) but education can't logically fix all low wages.

For example, rest home workers aren't by and large a highly qualified workforce. Some can and do choose to get more education, but there are no benefits within their own workforce for upskilling - their employers continue to pay them low wages. That's the market. If such a worker wants better pay, she has to move into a different workforce (she might work as an enrolled nurse in the public sector, for exemple). Her increased education may have benefited her personally, but it has done nothing beneficial for the carers' workforce who do socially vital work.

If you simply rely on educating everyone (rather than eg paying people decent wages) as a strategy to combat poverty, how will jobs like this get done? Likewise, who will work as gas station attendants, hospitality workers, etc? Some 'menial' jobs can get sent overseas (so that eg child labourers can do them cheaper), but there will always be a place for jobs that don't require a high level of education within NZ. Is the solution to educate all these workers into better paying jobs, so no one is left behind to care for the elderly?