Monday, July 18, 2011

For Their Own Benefit

If you take the Welfare Working Group at face value, their greatest concern is the well being of people on benefits, and their children. Its final report states:

Reducing the unacceptably high incidence of child poverty in New Zealand through a particular focus on risk jobless households and whanau must be a high priority of reform.

A lot is also made of the gains to self-esteem and dignity from being in paid work. Apart from the apparent futility of getting sole parents to organise and pay someone else to look after their children while they try to earn the same level of subsistence income, this is fair enough

But what it would take to help the majority of people struggling on benefits to get paid work? As the WWG acknowleges at different points, apart from child care, there's less punitive benefit abatement rates, education and skills training, more intensive individualised support for disabled people, drug rehabilitation, better public transport, help with the cost relocating to job-rich locations, and the list goes on.

The final report sums it up:

Reducing long-term benefit dependency requires an effective health system, an effective education system, adequate provision of affordable childcare, and the availability of suitable jobs. Social barriers to employment also need to be addressed, such as discrimination in the labour market and in the workplace against various groups including the long-term unemployed and disabled people. (p.54)

The problem is, all this doesn't square with the other stated concern of the WWG of reducing costs, nor with the assertion, backed by rather odd use of data in their Issues paper, that the current system is "unsustainable". If you were sincere about the doing the things required to support as many people as possible to get paid work, you'd need to consider that it might actually cost more.

Then there's the immense blind spot explained in passing by the fact that "our Terms of Reference precluded consideration of rates of payment in the welfare system". The WWG duly recognises that "children whose parents rely on income from the welfare system are at significantly higher risk of poverty" but assiduously avoids noting the obvious: you could address at least some of the problems suffered by the children of beneficiaries simply by making benefits less miserly.Link
Short of sending people to live under bridges, the current system, as flawed as it is, may actually be the cheapest option. If the idea is that we need to invest more to prevent people being left to rot, then I'm all for it. But given that the most specific WWG recommendations mainly involve things like making the higher payments for sickness and disability benefit discretionary, and inventing byzantine new "sanctions" regimes, one wonders if that is actually the plan.

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