Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Welfare report comes up short on answers

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Beneficiaries spoke of feeling bashed, scapegoated, and unfairly characterised as 'bludgers', 'lazy', and 'fraudulent'. Photo / Daily Post
Beneficiaries spoke of feeling bashed, scapegoated, and unfairly characterised as 'bludgers', 'lazy', and 'fraudulent'. Photo / Daily Post

I'm not sure what's worse. The fact that the welfare working group's latest report beats up on beneficiaries as hopeless dependents who need to be weaned none too gently from sucking on the state's teat, or that it wastes our money repeating (and then ignoring) what we already know about the benefit system.

On the one hand, it says things like: "Most people on the unemployment benefit are motivated to find paid work." "Sole parents face extra challenges in undertaking [parenting] roles alone." "People with fewer qualifications, less work experience and longer benefit duration who have worse earnings prospects and less access to paid work, are far less likely to move into employment." "The majority of people on a benefit meet their income assistance obligations."

On the other hand, it thinks "benefit dependency" is so bad that malingering beneficiaries need "strong signals" to discourage them from getting too accustomed to what Social Development Minister Paula Bennett has called "a lifestyle choice".

"The dream is over," she has said - and she should know as she was once a single mother on the domestic purposes benefit (although apparently life on the DPB wasn't so "sweet" she couldn't wait to get off it).

"Dependency" and a lack of "work focus", the WWG tells us over and over again is the problem, though it offers little evidence of this. Tellingly, one of the very few beneficiary voices it quotes in its lengthy paper had this to say: "Nah, me and my mates [there were four of them] got it sweet on the benny [an income support benefit]."

We get it. Some people don't want to work; some people even cheat the system, hence the need for tougher penalties and "strong public messages". (The Ministry of Social Development has 80 investigators dedicated to identifying such cheaters. In 2009/10, the report says, overpayments as a result of fraud and abuse accounted for 0.5 per cent of all payments. Presumably, that means 99.5 per cent were legitimate).

Mike O'Brien, an associate professor of social policy at Massey University, questions the focus on dependency. He writes that other than anecdotal stories and "prejudicial assertion", no evidence is presented to support the claim about benefit "dependence".

In fact, the best available New Zealand evidence clearly points to "the availability of work, the availability of work in the context of family commitments (particularly for those with dependent children) and the extent to which work and family and child care responsibilities can be effectively managed" being the deciding factors in beneficiaries getting off the benefit.

"In other words, the critical consideration is the availability of work and the personal and social supports surrounding that, not the alleged behaviour and lack of motivation of beneficiaries."

O'Brien notes that not only are some dependents more politically acceptable than others - the more than 257,000 getting tax credits under Working for Families, for example, or the superannuitants who make up our largest and most expensive beneficiary group - but that "dependence" has overtaken "poverty" as the greater evil to be avoided.

Well, of course. Dependence is the beneficiary's problem; poverty might imply responsibility on the part of the state.

Being on a benefit is bad for you and your children, not because the benefit might be inadequate to live on, but because dependency saps you of initiative and drive, and makes you content to exist as a second- or even third-class citizen.

Thus, Work and Income is doing the mentally unstable and terminally ill a favour when it hounds them for medical certificates. It's for their own good.

Beneficiaries who talked to the alternative welfare working group presented a somewhat different reality.

They spoke of feeling bashed, scapegoated, and unfairly characterised as "bludgers", "lazy", and "fraudulent" when many were trying to get themselves together after some "horrible" event in their lives - the loss of a partner, for example, or a serious illness.

"Remind them we are people," said one.

The WWG knows that "there is considerable diversity in people who are unemployed". It knows that while most people need only a little time to get back on their feet, some people need considerably more help.

But it manages to leap right over all of this, to get to benefit limits, penalties, "strong signals", and the possibility of insurance-based funding.

It now wants New Zealanders to tell them how we want our welfare system reformed.

Sadly, they already seem compromised.

It isn't only that the current system isn't "focused enough on work, and [is] failing to deliver the economic and social outcomes that the community should expect" - though this seems more a message for the Government than beneficiaries.

Changing the benefit system alone won't solve our problems. It's simply the end of a long chain of failures - from education to labour market policies.

As a submitter to the alternative welfare working group said:

"Adjusting the levers and settings within the benefit structure to try to reduce benefit dependency, without paying attention to the host of complex underlying social issues related to being on a benefit long term, will be at best superficial and at worst cause even greater hardship and suffering amongst the most vulnerable."

Tapu.Misa@gmail.com

- NZ Herald

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