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Lindsay Mitchell

Latest welfare reform no cause for hysteria

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There is no better example of the radical left than Sue Bradford. Recently she reverted to chaining herself to convenient fixtures. This time, a pillar at the Ministry of Social Development’s Auckland office, her major complaint  against cuts to benefit payments if new obligations aren’t met.

Obligations are well known to people with jobs. They have obligations to their employers to be there on time, to observe the conditions of their contract and generally toe the line during their hours of employment. Working parents are obliged to put their children in some sort of care, be it formal or family-based. In return they receive a pay packet that furnishes their needs and wants, not dissimilar to a benefit, though usually more generous.

But Sue  describes new rules requiring single parents  of school-age children to be available for at least 10 hours work per week, to enrol their children with a GP and get them to kindy from aged 3, as “brutal and pointless”.

The language is extreme. It’s used deliberately. It’s attention seeking. It plays to the media and disaffected alike. Drama is marketable. And inadequacy is always looking to shift blame elsewhere.

Less visible behind this political protest are the children. Why resist enrolling a child with a doctor? The case for compulsory childcare enrolment is less certain. But the need for a child to have the example of a working parent is paramount. A parent creates the life template for their child. Growing up on welfare shapes children’s expectations. For instance, that money will come out of the ATM for doing what Mum does. Being on a benefit.

At times I admire Bradford for having the courage of her convictions. Notwithstanding, I wish this particular protest would prove to be Sue’s swan song. The government’s new welfare policies might not be 100 percent right but their direction is.

The latest social security bill currently progressing through parliament has the following stated focusses:

  • “a new system of main benefits, to embed a work focus throughout the benefit system”;
  • “delivering a new approach to working with people in the benefit system who are either sick or disabled”;
  • “introducing drug testing requirements where a beneficiary is referred to a job or training programme where drug testing is a prerequisite, matched with financial sanctions for non-compliance”;
  • “using the welfare system to reinforce some important social norms relating to children’s education and health, through the use of obligations that beneficiaries with children must meet in order to continue receiving Government assistance”; and

“stopping benefit payments to beneficiaries with a warrant to arrest that remains unresolved after 28 days from issue, provided (except where public safety is at risk) the beneficiary is given appropriate notice and the opportunity to clear the warrant to arrest.”1

The first should be axiomatic. It’s disturbing that the benefit system was ever allowed to stray from a “work focus” for the vast majority of ‘clients’. Even Labour acknowledged that work is the best way out of poverty and when the previous CEO of the Ministry of Social Development departed in 2011, he left saying,“We know that for the same level of income, kids do better where that income’s derived from paid work.”2

To this end the newly named Unemployment Benefit –  Jobseeker Support – will also replace the Domestic Purposes Benefit for single parents with children aged 14 plus. It could have included parents with younger children (in Australia single parents with children aged 8 and older go on their equivalent unemployment benefit – Newstart Allowance) so the government has been fairly moderate in this respect.

Sole Parent Support replaces DPB and Widow’s Benefit for single parents and widows with children under 14. Parents with pre-school children will be expected to prepare for work and those with school-age children will be expected to look for and accept part-time work (10-20 hours). Again, hardly harsh expectations.

After seventy-odd years, the Sickness and Invalid benefits will also disappear. Sickness beneficiaries will move onto the Jobseeker Support and be expected to be available for work according to their capacity. Some will be granted a temporary exemption in anticipation of being able to work at some later point. Extra help to become work-ready will be offered. Invalid beneficiaries, and those currently on the DPB Caring for the Infirm,  will move onto the Supported Living Payment which recognises that some people are genuinely unable to support themselves due to physical or mental disability, or are caring for someone who would otherwise be institutionalised. They will not be work-tested.

(In addition to the three new benefits the government has already introduced Youth Payment and Young Parent Payment which feature a lower cash component and increased assistance- in- kind support. Privately contracted mentors are now working alongside these youngsters to improve their life chances and those of their offspring).

The much maligned drug-testing policy applies only to people who are put forward for jobs that require a test. At the moment WINZ refers potential employees for these jobs. If the applicant fails the test he or she stays on a benefit. This is an obvious problem for the taxpayer but it is also a problem for WINZ because it undermines their relationship with employers who naturally become reluctant to interview beneficiaries. So in future WINZ will reimburse the employer for a failed test and reclaim the cost from the individual’s benefit. Repeated failure to apply or pass a drug-test will result in a benefit sanction (cut). Importantly, WINZ will NOT be routinely drug-testing all beneficiaries as a condition of benefit eligibility.

A weakness of the approach to drug-users is diagnosed addicts will be able to stay on welfare. Some users will be aiming to achieve a diagnosis as addict or alcoholic for this purpose.

As previously mentioned the new social obligations for a parent on welfare are only what most people – working and non-working – already meet in the interests of their children. Using the benefit to increase WellChild compliance, improve GP enrolment, and pre-school and primary attendance is aimed at the most at-risk children from the most dysfunctional families.

The final focus regarding arrest warrants would also seem entirely reasonable to law-abiding people, those funding both the benefit and justice systems. In the past anyone deemed not of good moral character and sober habits would have been denied a benefit. Today however, you can be a recidivist law-breaker and keep your benefit so long as arrest warrants aren’t ignored. How far we have come. Or slipped.