A doctor's certificate is often a ticket to social welfare. From this week it becomes a recipe for work. At least that is the hope behind a new certificate that doctors will have to fill out for people seeking a benefit for physical or mental illness. The sickness benefit became a refuge for many of the unemployed when the dole was made conditional on being available for work. Now sickness beneficiaries are to be "work tested" too.
Those who go to the doctor for the required form will find it has been changed. It is headed "Work Capacity" and declares at the top of the page: "The evidence is compelling: for most individuals, working improves health and wellbeing and reduces psychological distress". The doctor must then describe the applicant's "barriers to work" and answer the question, "What accommodations, supports or services could be put in place to assist the person into suitable and open employment?"
If doctors follow this format, their discussion with the person will be not confined to aches and pains or phobias and stress but will take a more positive turn, inviting such people to think about what sort of work they could do. An exercise of this kind is asking a lot of doctors, who might not have much time to help someone imagine all possibilities. They will need to be satisfied it serves the interests of the individual's health, not necessarily the Government's social policy.
It is one of many social welfare reforms that came into effect this week. They include more pressure on sole parents to accept a full-time paid job once their youngest child turns 14, and "work-focused case management" for some of those who have been on sickness benefits. Work and Income NZ will be concentrating its help on those assessed to be at risk of becoming long-term unemployed unless they find a job soon.
The search is not easy when the economy is not in an expansionary phase, but there is always work to be found. Much will depend on the confidence and record of the seeker. The greatest disservice to these people is the claim they constantly hear from the political opposition that "there are no jobs available".
Nearly three-quarters of the 49,000 unemployed have been on the dole for less than a year. Unless their work is seasonal, they cannot be the same people who were unemployed this time last year when the rate was just as high. Most of those people have found another job.
Most of them found one without needing the help of Work and Income NZ. The department, as our social issues reporter Simon Collins revealed in a series this week, intends to provide "intensive case management" to about 85,000 of 235,000 working-age beneficiaries on its books. The rest are sole parents with young children, or people in low paid work receiving income supplements, or invalids.
The invalid's benefit is now to be called the "supported living payment", which does not seem wise. In March, there were 83,400 people on an invalid's benefit, and only 53,200 on the sickness benefit. If doctors must draw the line between illness and permanent incapacity, their task might be easier if the name of the permanent benefit made the distinction clear.
Doctors will need no convincing that it is healthy for the physically and mentally ill to have paid work if they can do it. Their profession has played an important part in designing the new work capacity certificate. When they know an applicant would benefit more from a job than a hand-out, they have the questions to back them up. In many cases their new certificate will be a healthier prescription.