Shane Jones wants to compel unemployed youth in the country's poorest regions to get "off the couch" and into work.

It's an admirable ambition and plays well with New Zealand First's older, conservative base.

But the fact that Jones - Minister for Regional Economic Development - is not afraid to use language like "work for dole" has already spooked his coalition partners.

Labour and the Greens are deeply ideologically opposed to the idea of work for dole. Union supporters believe these schemes can be abused by employers and to undercut workers' wages.


There are broader concerns that compulsory work is punitive and treats the unemployed as "bludgers", ignoring the more complex social pressures at work.

Opponents have good cause for scepticism.

There is no shortage of examples where similar schemes just haven't worked.

In Britain the Conservative Government introduced the Mandatory Work for Activities scheme in 2011.

It was scrapped in 2015. Research by the British Government's own Department of Work and Pensions found "little evidence" that workfare improved claimants gaining paid employment.

But Jones' isn't proposing work for dole as some kind of nationwide social welfare policy.
He is keen on localised solutions targeting some of New Zealand's poorest and most desperate communities.

These are communities where it is typically Maori youth who are most at risk.
Endemic unemployment, drugs, alcohol and lack of family support structures create a poverty trap – with all the associated negative outcomes for both physical and mental health.

There is little doubt that a more proactive approach is needed in these communities.
Jones with his iwi roots in the Northland will have a deeper understanding that most of the specific challenges facing these communities.


In that context he deserves a shot. Perhaps on trial basis, in specific communities where this kind of programme can be implemented in tandem with Government investment in job creation.

The point of making young people plant trees or pick fruit is not that they should all find a career in horticulture or forestry.

It is that the act of getting out of the house, turning up at work on time and feeling like they've earned their weekly pay is an achievement in itself.

Activity, however basic, can help fight depression and engender a sense of self-esteem.
It puts something on a CV where there was nothing – or with additional support – it may provide the drive for previously demotivated young people to take on further training.
The success of scheme like this must be measured in individual stories.

Everyone that makes it out of the poverty trap will take current or future whanau members with them.

The name of the scheme doesn't matter.

Whatever its final form, we can be sure it will be work shopped and focus grouped into something palatable to the Government's supporters on the Left.

But retaining an element of increased power to compel young people to "get off the couch" is key for Jones and New Zealand First.

The experts are no doubt correct that these schemes don't work when applied from on high without buy in from the communities where help is most needed.

The heavy handed mistakes of those who have pushed compulsory work as a moral fix for poverty should not be repeated.

But Jones seems to be proposing something different here. And he has the energy and experience to make it work, if anyone can.