Gordon Campbell on the welfare reform proposals

Published: Wed 2 Nov 2011 10:40 AM
Gordon Campbell on the welfare reform proposals
Remember the so called ‘underclass? Remember when John Key in 2007 went walking down McGehan Close in Owairaka, and took 12 year old Aroha Nathan to Waitangi in his Crown limousine? Key’s promises to tackle the problems of the underclass have subsequently proved to be hollow.
Earlier this year, the residents of McGehan Close delivered their own verdict on the Prime Minister’s use of their street for a political stunt. A fortnight ago, Key conceded that the situation of the underclass had, if anything, got worse, not better.
Prime Minister John Key has acknowledged that the "growing underclass" he promised to tackle in 2008 has probably grown further - rather than decreased - during his first term in government….
He said he had visited a number of budgeting services and food banks "and I think it's fair to say they've seen an increase in people accessing their services. So that situation is there."
[Press conference audio here]
Comes another election, and National is at it again. It seems hellbent on using the plight of the poorest families in society for its electoral advantage. There is no reason to think the changes to welfare eligibility being mooted will improve the lot of the children who will be the eventual victims of the policy reforms. Mainly because the jobs that would make the proposals feasible – or more to the point, would make the policy irrelevant – are simply not there. The current government knows it. Even the NZ Herald knows it.
Given the known jobs deficit, this can only mean that the nice, likeable Mr Key is willing to make the lives of some of the most disadvantaged children in New Zealand more miserable, for electoral advantage. Quite a guy.
On the evidence, there is no lack of motivation among people already out to chase the few jobs available. Our readiness to do so has made the world news. In January, the Australian ABC News reported with incredulity how 5,000 people had turned up to apply for 150 near minimum wage jobs at a new supermarket in Manakau.
In May, over a 1,000 people queued for hours for 140 jobs at a supermarket in Hamilton. In September, another 1,000 people applied for 170 supermarket jobs in the Christchurch suburb of Ilam.
What these desperate events indicate is that people are already doing all they can to find work. (They need to be helped, not stigmatised.) That’s why benefit levels fell to historical lows immediately prior to the global recession.
Regardless, the welfare reform policies being mooted will crack down in particular on the solo parents who are struggling to raise children on their own. There is a myth that most women on the DPB are the irresponsible, promiscuous teenage mothers of the underclass. That’s why John Key once described being on the DPB as “breeding for a business”.
In fact, as Scoop keeps on arguing, the numbers of teen mothers on the DPB are a tiny, declining minority. The rate of teen pregnancies among 15-19 declined last year. Sure, to the extent there is a problem of long term dependency, it can and should be targeted – but without stigmatising every single person on a benefit, given that thousands of them are heroically raising the next generation on a pittance of state support.
A far, far greater proportion of those on the DPB are – or were – middle class women left to raise children largely on their own, after a divorce or relationship breakdown. Many of them have already suffered a decline in income and living standards as a result. National now intends to make their hard job even harder.
The current government seems to regard parenting as such an unimportant task that solo mothers should be forced into work testing when their child is one, into part-time work when their youngest child is five, and into fulltime work when the youngest child is 14. Latchkey kids, as we all know, are never a problem.
This approach not only treats every solo parent as a backsliding welfare bludger – it is bound to fail when the jobs they are being forced to train for and apply for, simply do not exist. Even more rare are the jobs that will pay a wage that makes the related childcare/transport costs sustainable, and/or likely to lift the children involved out of poverty. The process is one of pure, cynical politics. It is being pitched at the working poor and the struggling middle class, in order to re-assure them that no one else is getting it any easier.
What National is proposing to do is to scrap the existing benefit system (ie, sickness, DPB, invalids benefit, widow’s benefit, unemployment benefit etc) and reduce them to three new categories, all defined by the ability to work. Everyone on unemployment and sickness benefits – plus solo parents with children over 14 year of age – will be placed on a Jobseeker Support Benefit and be required to look for fulltime work.
Solo parents with younger children would get Sole Parent Support but would be required to undergo work testing when their child turned one, and would be expected to work part-time when their youngest was 5. Those with major, permanent disabilities will be placed in a separate category, and will be work exempt.
Allegedly, the changes will remove 46,000 people from the benefit rolls, put another 11,000 into part-time work, and save $1 billion within four years. The figures are the stuff of fantasy. (Or parallel causation. During the boom years of the 2000s, some 120,000 came off the benefit rolls without the level of compulsion now being proposed.) To get the policy on the rails, the government is budgeting to spend $130 million a year to provide support such as training, help with childcare costs, and medical treatment. Given the current jobs outlook, that expenditure looks more like pouring money down the drain.
“National's package.” the NZ Herald sniffed in its editorial, “would be convincing, however, only if it were accompanied by one creating jobs.” To repeat: in the absence of a meaningful job creation package, the welfare reforms will impact mainly– and deliberately – on those women who are trying to raise children on their own. The reforms will also impact on the children themselves, since inevitably, they will have less access to their mothers during years when they are highly vulnerable. All for a social and economic return that is about as illusory as winning Lotto.
Key presumably still believes the DPB is about breeding for a business. He and the party he leads appear to be living in denial about the social and economic realities of divorce – which peaked as recently as 2005 in New Zealand – and marital breakdown. (It is all too understandable why some of the men involved might want to vote for such policies, in order to make the lives of their former partners more miserable.)
There is, I’d argue, a current of misogyny underlying the reforms. These are women bashing policies, as well as being welfare bashing proposals. For that reason, there would be some merit in launching an election boycott by women voters of the political parties that are proposing these changes – until, at the very least, a viable job creation package is put up alongside them.

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