Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Beneficiaries easy target for cattle prod

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Tapu Misa. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey
Tapu Misa. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey

A friend suggests I throw reason out the door the next time I'm arguing with my husband, and just use this line: "I'm not saying it's your fault. I'm just saying I'm blaming you."

Maybe the Welfare Working Group has been reading the same website as my friend. Its final report is underpinned by the same message: We're not saying it's your fault you can't get a job. We're just saying you're a malingering freeloader who's not trying hard enough.

So I'm not saying the group is heartless, I'm just saying that some of its proposals lack a heartbeat.

The group says it wants people to work because work is good for them. It is deeply concerned about the 222,000 children in benefit-dependent households (though not enough to recommend an immediate rise in benefit levels to ease their suffering), and the wasted human potential of those languishing on the benefit.

But its real goal, the one that matters to a debt-fixated government bent on cutting spending, is to get people off benefits and into jobs.

Actually, that's what almost everyone wants.

The difference is the working group seems to think people need to be cattle-prodded into choosing employment over the superior lifestyle afforded by the benefit, so life on the benefit must be made even more unattractive.

Whereas everyone who works with beneficiary families says life is miserable enough already, and it would help if the working group would point them to these jobs that are crying out for single mothers of pre-schoolers and the sick and disabled.

There's a gulf between the reality and complexity of people's lives, and the blithe expectations of those who design proposals aimed at incentivising them to make the "right" choices.

People don't just wake up one day and decide they're going to become beneficiaries - and if they do, surely it says something about the alternatives?

To be fair, the working group hasn't been totally blind to the realities faced by the beneficiaries it's targeting: sole parents, and the sick and disabled.

Its recommendations for huge government investment in early childhood education, after school care, and drug and rehabilitation services (at a cost of up to $285 million a year), as well as help with childcare and other costs for sole parents forced to look for work, are a welcome acknowledgement that there's no quick or cheap fix to getting people off benefits.

But some of the group's more extreme proposals will make life harder for the children it professes to be concerned about.

Where, for example, is the economic or social benefit in forcing the mother of a 3-year-old, or 14-month-old, to find work?

If the country can afford to pay for the transport and childcare costs for the more than 20 hours it will take a sole parent to fulfil her obligations to the state, why can it not afford to let her stay home with her child if her circumstances and the labour market make that the more sensible and beneficial choice? Should we ignore child development research and our instincts about a child's best interests to exact our pound of flesh?

It's easy for John Key to say sole parents will only have to work 20 hours under the group's proposals (ignoring the last Household Labour Force Survey which finds that the sort of part-time jobs parents would need are fast disappearing).

The working group makes no distinction between good jobs and bad, yet the research suggests that not all jobs are beneficial. If jobs aren't secure or sufficiently well paid, sole parents can be worse off, disadvantaging their children even further by denying them time with the one parent they have.

We pay lip service to the needs of children, but we continue to fail them.

The evidence tells us that the children of beneficiaries often live in conditions that set them up for poor health and educational failure, limiting their future potential, and increasing the likelihood that they will end up on the dole, or in prison, or addicted to drugs and alcohol.

We could ensure a better standard of living for them now, as health professionals have urged, and as a more generous Australia does, for example, but we would prefer to make a point, to teach their parents a lesson.

If our education and health systems are then overloaded, why are we surprised when some end up welfare-dependent?

A tiny minority of beneficiaries cheats the system. The numbers of young girls having babies is trending downwards. The employment rate for the sick and disabled is among the highest in the OECD. Most sole parents and sickness beneficiaries will move off benefits if suitable work is available and they have support.

But even if the working group's every premise about beneficiaries is right, they would still be missing the point.

When things go wrong, we need a system that responds to people as individuals - human beings with real needs and struggles who deserve our help - and not as some amorphous, faceless group of people intent on cheating us.

- NZ Herald

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