The Welfare Working Group on whose taxpayer-funded ruminations National is basing its brave new "reforms" was very big on beneficiaries needing an attitude change to give them "a stronger work focus". Many needed "strong signals", said the group, to enable them "to recognise the importance of paid employment".

But maybe it's the Government that needs the attitude change and a lecture on getting a stronger jobs focus.

At National's welfare policy launch last week, Prime Minister John Key was long on the obligations of "jobseekers" to "actively" look for work, but silent on whether this imposed a corresponding obligation on his Government to just as "actively" create jobs during an economic downturn.

Instead, there was this nod to the resentful: "A lot of people who get up in the morning and go off to work are just like people on benefits - they are not well off, they are sole parents, and they have medical conditions of their own. And actually, it's these working people who are paying taxes to keep the benefit system going."


Which made one feel almost unlucky to have a job.

Anyone would think that the hike in unemployment and benefit numbers since National came to power was for want of "strong signals" and "incentives" to work, rather than the more obvious lack of jobs.

True, there had been a global economic downturn, and our unemployment rate of 6.6 per cent is certainly not as bad as others' (the United States' is 9 per cent). But we've gone from the lowest in the OECD (in 2005, 3.6 per cent) to the 12th lowest, and that's bad enough.

In the September quarter, another 3000 people were added to the unemployment queue, taking the total to 157,000. The jobless total, which includes those discouraged from looking for work, is much higher at 254,300. Maori (15.1 per cent), Pacific (13.8) and youth 15-19 (23.4) continue to experience the highest rates of unemployment.

Do these groups need stronger signals, or more help getting jobs? National's benefit reforms assume the former. So, unemployment and sickness beneficiaries, and solo parents with children over 14, will be placed on the Jobseeker Support Benefit and required to look for full-time work (meaning a drop in benefit for the solo parents).

Solo parents with younger children will get Sole Parent Support but be required to undergo work testing when their child turns 1, and expected to work part-time when their youngest is 5.

National has been at pains to portray this as "tough love". Not only does it claim that its reforms will save a billion dollars over four years (though it's hard to see how if it's paying for sole parents' childcare and engaging in the kind of meaningful "investment" recommended by its welfare working group), but it paints itself as rescuing those poor souls abandoned to "welfare dependency" by the current "passive" benefit system. (Yes, much better to harass the already vulnerable and stressed into looking for non-existent jobs to show them how much we care.)

Is all this really necessary? Were the thousands who queued for low-waged supermarket jobs this year not convincing enough in demonstrating an appropriate level of "attachment" to paid work?


What about the thousands who came off benefits in the 2000s when jobs were plentiful, pushing benefit spending as a percentage of GDP from 4 per cent in the late 1990s to around 2 per cent by the time of the global financial crisis?

Auckland University economist Dr Susan St John says National's "visionless reforms" will only make life more precarious for thousands of vulnerable children. Some 222,000 live in benefit-reliant households, and many of the worst off are in single-parent families.

But Social Development Minister Paula Bennett argues that "if we get people into work, that is the best way to get those children out of poverty".

When asked in Parliament by Greens co-leader Metiria Turei how low-wage jobs were a solution to poverty "when for every five children living in poverty, two are living in working households", Bennett replied: "Because people are more likely to get into a higher-paid job by being in work, gaining skills, and actually being in that working environment."

Is this true? The Welfare Working Group certainly thought so, although, as the Welfare Justice group's Paul Dalziel has argued, their belief that any "low-paid, low-quality, part-time employment will lead to positive outcomes for most people" was built on shaky ground - "a single study using United States data from the 1980s, which nevertheless itself reported 'reason to worry' about the ability of benefit recipients to sustain continuous, full-time work experience".

Dalziel said a wealth of credible evidence argued strongly against the idea that any work is good.


For example, the highly regarded Marmot Review of Health Inequalities in England found that "insecure and poor-quality employment is associated with increased risks of poor physical and mental health".

"Work is good - and unemployment bad - for physical and mental health," said the Marmot Review, "but the quality of the work matters. Getting people off benefits and into low-paid, insecure and health-damaging work is not a desirable option."