Thursday, 11 February 2010

Putting big holes in the safety net

One of the things that I like about the concept of a proper welfare state is the idea that no matter your circumstances if you need it you can get support from your government. Currently in New Zealand if you can't get/do paid work you can get a benefit, with the idea that plans and methods to turn that around will be available when practical. Personally I think the benefit levels are far too low, an injustice exacerbated by Ruth Richardson, Jim Bolger, Jenny Shipley et al in the early 1990s and never re-dressed since. But that's an issue for another post.

On Tuesday when he opened Parliament for the year, our Prime Minister, Mr John Key, mentioned some significant changes to the benefit system that his Government intends to make in 2010. And they look to me like opening up some very significant holes in the safety net approach we've historically had to welfare.

If these changes do go through then there will be people out there, perhaps people like you and me, perhaps even you or me, who cannot access any financial support whatsoever from our government in times of difficulty.

Here's the nice, friendly, beneficiary cuddling awful, mean (in both senses of the word), beneficiary bashing bit that honestly scares me:
Although Ms Bennett said final decisions had still not been signed off by Cabinet, this is expected to mean implementing National's election promise to make unemployed people reapply for the dole after a year and "do what it takes to secure employment".

"This may include practical training, attending a basic skills course or attending drug and alcohol rehabilitation," the policy said.

"After that, they will be required to actively look for a job, to go to any job interview they are referred to, and to accept any offer of suitable employment, whether fulltime, part-time, temporary or seasonal.

"If they do not comply with these obligations, they will have their benefit reduced in the first instance, then suspended and then cancelled." [my emphasis]

This is freaky stuff. This is leaving people out there potentially with nothing if they don't accept whatever is offered.

And this is a Bad Employer's field day - accept my awful pay offer, doing work you would hate and which would destroy you, and put up with my sexual harassment, or no more dole for you. Oh and by the way, I can fire you within 90 Days for no reason at all and then you're even more poked.

Many people seem to think they could never end up on a benefit. They're hard working, they are law-abiding, they never buy big buckets of KFC, and they believe all the stereotypes about those labelled dole bludgers. But any one of us could be unable to support ourselves through paid work at any time. So many think they are invulnerable, but all it takes is an accident, a diagnosis, a fraudulent act by someone else, an unexpected pregnancy, a death, bad management, bad press, an allegation, an attack, for everything to change.

I couldn't do paid work for three years, through no fault of my own. And even if it had been my fault, even if I had screwed up big time, wouldn't you, as a fellow human being, rather I had enough funding to feed and clothe myself, to keep myself in decent housing, to provide for my child, than have nothing at all? Because it could be any of us, anytime, and we should never forget that.

And that's why what our Government is planning to do is so wrong. It is a total and utter failure of compassion; it reflects a world view that blames those in a bad place for it and actually seeks vengeance against them for it by withholding support when it could be given.

You don't have to be religious to see that this is immoral. And I don't know if we can stop it.

18 comments:

Lindsay said...

Where to start?

Firstly you will find that because of the way social security has been organised in NZ many people, having paid tax, have no entitlement when any of the maladies you list befall them. So government provision is not certain anyway. But govt does take enough tax off people to prevent them making their own private provision. That's a "compassionate" govt?

Most benefits were created in 1938 and for a period their uptake was stable. But from the 70s they started climbing disproportionately to population growth. People's behaviour changed as thinking changed. Feminism, for instance, brought huge change and the increasing availability of welfare compounded the change. People began to develop an entitlement mentality rather than the mentality you are describing - one of resorting to the safety net only in dire circumstances.

Today's numbers of dependent people are a problem in anyone's book. Somehow uptake of benefits has to be reduced. If the benefit system hadn't been treated as an alternate and legitimate source of income by people who in past times would have supported themselves or relied on family, we wouldn't be at this point.

But I wouldn't worry about National's plans Julie. They will not amount to much change.

stargazer said...

yawn, lindsay. what else was happening in the 1970's? remember the oil crisis & end of cheap oil? remember that britain joined the EU & suddenly stopped automatically soaking up all our exports? both of these had a huge impact on our economy, and equally explain a significant part of the rise in beneficiary numbers. as did all the restructuring and privatisation in the 1980s, and some pretty nasty economic policies in the 1990s. if people have such an "entitlement" mentality, why did 2,000 turn up to apply for around 100 low-paid jobs at an auckland supermarket recently? seems like they'd rather be at work.

as for the DPB, suggest you have a listen to this. you seem to be keen to force people to stay in relationships that don't work. if you want to get DPB numbers down, which had started to happen in the last five years, you provide these people with adequate education (remember the training incentive allowance, now scrapped?), and then make sure there are jobs in the economy for them to go to, as well as adequate child care provisions.

Lindsay said...

I only mentioned one aspect of the change - feminism - because of its relevance to this blog.

No. Not keen to make people stay in relationships that don't work. But temporary assistance would enable them to leave. Long term assistance actually contributes to making young women (and their children) in particular, vulnerable to economic and physical violence.

The small drop in DPB numbers over what was a period of strong economic growth was very disappointing.

"if you want to get DPB numbers down, which had started to happen in the last five years, you provide these people with adequate education (remember the training incentive allowance, now scrapped?), and then make sure there are jobs in the economy for them to go to, as well as adequate child care provisions."

Is nobody responsible for their own lives any more? What about getting the education BEFORE the kids? Sorry, but it seems the obvious is never stated.

stargazer said...

What about getting the education BEFORE the kids?

costs the same, whenever you get it. and if you've been out of the workforce for a while looking after young children, it's likely you're going to need retraining.

sophia b said...

good article, but i have one issue with it which was "You don't have to be religious to see that this is immoral." which seems to take the assumption that the non-religious population is less caring about moral/ethical concerns but this is bad enough that even they should see it.

Most of us non-religous people are caring, good people just like you, and I can see no reason for throwing in an insult against us like that in a article that has nothing to do with religion.

Julie said...

Just quickly, in regard to sophia b's point - I too am not religious and was trying to get across that morality is not just the preserve of those who are religious. Looks like I failed!

Anonymous said...

What the Lindsay's of this world tend to forget, that without the welfare system that they hate too much, we would have homelesseness and hardship on a scale unimaginable in this country. And that is something which is unacceptable in my opinion.

Everyone, regardless of the choices they made in life should have a right to some form of security of income, a roof over their heads and a decent standard of living, and I am more than happy for the tax I pay to go towards that end.

Its called being part of a decent society, and Lindsay, if you dont like it, I suggest you move to a country where single mothers and their babies end up begging on the streets

Millsy

Alison said...

I tend to think that as long as we have an economic system in which a certain level of unemployment is necessary to keep inflation down and profit margins up, we rather owe it to those people who fulfill that role to provide for them, however it is that they come to be in the "expendible" category.

Lindsay said...

Millsy, Why do you constantly misrepresent my position? I am still waiting for the evidence "on record" as you put it, that I advocated huge cuts to the minimum wage. I can only conclude that you make it up to satisfy your own prejudices or discredit me.

What I want is a safety net that is not abused or exploited - as was once the case - and temporary assistance only for those people quite capable of supporting themselves. I oppose lifestyle welfare. That is the position I have taken and written about for at least 6 or 7 years. It is hardly radical.

Anonymous said...

Dare I ask exactly what "lifestyle welfare" is? Another right-wing beneficiary bashing buzzword I suppose.

Lindsay said...

Lifestyle is about choice.

Well over a third and maybe as many as half (MSD data only extends back to 1996 so the actual number isn't available) of single parents on the DPB started on welfare as teenagers. In some communities people choose between getting their income from work or from WINZ. For people who have grown up in welfare dependent families it is unsurprising that they follow in their parent's footsteps. But providing that option diminishes their ambition and potential.

Every year thousands of babies are born onto existing benefits. Again, choice.

For whatever reason, some people choose to live in rural areas where there are no work options. You may remember Labour's no-go zones for the unemployed. The policy was never extended to other beneficiaries.

So. no, it isn't just a "buzz word". It differentiates between people on benefits because they absolutely cannot avoid it (which I don't have a problem with) and those who could have but choose not to.

Julie said...

Lindsay, you stated in your first comment that many of the maladies I listed would not entitle people to support, could you please expand on this and tell me which ones and why? My expectation would be that in all those circumstances I would be eligible for support, although there might currently be a short term stand down period or some kind of means-testing which meant I couldn't access it immediately.

Also I am unclear how exactly giving long term assistance to solo parents who leave relationships makes them more vulnerable to "economic and physical violence". This would seem something of a counter-intuitive statement.

At the end of it all I agree with the first paragraph of Millsy's comment (whatever disagreement Lindsay and Millsy may have been having elsewhere which I don't know about). I cannot abide the idea that we give some people in our society, who are in need, nothing. And I'm not even talking about "think of the children" - I'm talking about the adult person too. No matter what they have done I don't think in our society, where we definitely could have enough for everyone, anyone should not have enough money to feed themselves and provide at least the basic necessities.

Lindsay, what do you think would happen to people who were on a benefit because they couldn't do paid work (for whatever reason) to survive, if that benefit went? Abolishing their benefit will not address the reason they were on the benefit in the first place.

Lindsay said...

Julie, Typically around 10 percent of DPB applications are not granted. During this recent recession many women have found that they do not qualify for unemployment benefit (despite having paid tax) because they have assets or a working partner. I am merely pointing out that social security may not be the insurance policy you think it is.

Some men are more than happy to leech off someone who has a roof over their head and guaranteed income. Someone to whom they need make no financial commitment. It's all one way. A mum on the DPB is a prime candidate. The Australian benefit quarantining policy is partly about protecting women from having their benefit money stolen by 'partners'. She, and only she, can access necessities, especially those her children depend on, via a Smartcard. Only part of the benefit is paid in cash.

Again, I am not opposed to meeting genuine need. But as a principle in a majority of cases the help should be temporary. Legislating for this would immediately change expectations and non-beneficiaries would attempt to avoid getting into circumstances that no longer guarantee indefinite support.

The rules can be changed without severely penalising those already in the system through either grand-parenting or exemptions.

Julie said...

Lindsay, I wasn't just referring to the DPB in my post. As I said in my last comment I can see that there might be times where in the short term someone wasn't able to get a benefit due to means-testing (should have included asset-testing, I did mean to cover that too), but I am still unclear about the list of "maladies" I listed wouldn't entitle someone who didn't have enough to get by to get some support from the State now. To my mind means- and asset-testing would apply to a partner also, I am aware of that. It makes sense to me that if you can access other forms of income in your household then it's required that you do that before you get a benefit (I'm not sure I agree with it, but I do understand that that is the present system).

Is that it though, is that the only way by which someone would be knocked out of eligibility if something on the list happened and they couldn't support themselves? Because actually the scenario of means- or asset-testing the household doesn't leave someone with no support whatsoever, because implicit in that is the idea that the person is still able to get some support, within their household.

But if someone couldn't do that, would they currently be unable to access the relevant benefit?

I still don't see any answer from you about what happens to people at the end of their temporary benefit if the reason they were on the benefit has not been addressed. Do they get nothing? It sounds like that is what you are suggesting. So what happens to them then?

Lindsay said...

Julie, My point about entitlement was what you have covered re income and asset testing. Some people believe welfare is a form of insurance. But unlike other countries, where funding differs, that isn't necessarily the case.

I answered the question about time-limits by referring to exemptions. Part of the US reform legislation which introduced time limits also allowed states to exempt up to 20 percent of dependent people. Therefore those with the greatest need were not cut off. The thing with the states is more assistance than here is provided in non-cash forms. Housing, food stamps, Medicaid, childcare. A majority of people leaving the rolls for jobs were not worse off.

Of course the recession has changed some positive trends and I believe Obama upped federal grants to the states for expanded welfare provision.

But by and large welfare systems should be designed for typical economic climates - not recessions.

Anonymous said...

Of course the little matter of taking someones money under threat of violence to give to someone else is never addressed huh? Theft doesn't get a mention...its only how should the theft be committed.

No ones "need" gives them a license to be given the stolen property of others.

Its the existence of the welfare state itself,being ever expanded as a front by a powerseeking State that is responsible for much of the so called poverty (of character mainly)we have in NZ.....

Anonymous said...

"What the Lindsay's of this world tend to forget, that without the welfare system that they hate too much, we would have homelesseness and hardship on a scale unimaginable in this country. And that is something which is unacceptable in my opinion."

Rubbish.With people having got back the choice of how their money is spent charities would boom (although the need for them would reduce greatly as people were incentivised to get into employemnt which would boom.

"Everyone, regardless of the choices they made in life should have a right to some form of security of income, a roof over their heads and a decent standard of living, and I am more than happy for the tax I pay to go towards that end."

A "right"...provided by whom?At who's expense?Theres no such thing as a right to anything another human being must provide you.Healthcare,food,education or even a handout to get you by.

"The man who produces while others consume is slave" Ayn Rand

"Its called being part of a decent society, and Lindsay, if you dont like it, I suggest you move to a country where single mothers and their babies end up begging on the streets."

A "decent" society doesn't steal from some and make them slaves to others.It doesn't trap thoses others into a dependent system like drug addicts.A decent society protectys the rights of the individual to be free from parasites who want to live off of them and claim doing so is a "right"

Julie said...

Oh goodie, the Libz have arrived! So good to know that tax is theft, clearly if I had known that I never would have shared my desire to pay more tax!

/sarc

Ok, proper response later.

Thank you Lindsay for clarifying from my questions in my last comment.