Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

On welfare bashing, and driving up a dead end in Afghanistan

August 9th, 2010

The government’s welfare working group has dutifully delivered the findings the government wants to hear. To Paula Rebstock and her colleagues, being on welfare is primarily a failure of attitude by beneficiaries – and has little or nothing to do with failures by government or business to create jobs, or with cutbacks to Social Welfare staff, or with any other structural factor beyond the education system – which gets a few lumps for not providing business with the kind of drones it needs to fit into the job slots available, assuming such slots existed, which they currently don’t.

There is a peculiarly airless quality to the working paper, driven as it is by ideology and not by any discernible engagement with New Zealand, 2010. Because the panel pays so little attention to events in the real world – newsflash : the job market has not yet recovered from the worst economic recession since WW11, and that global recession seems about to recur – it could have been written at any time over the last four decades.

The scare scenario that it offers to justify change in welfare policy is bogus: if nothing is done, the working paper says, the welfare system that currently costs $6.5 billion could end up costing $50 billion which would be unsustainable. Duh. But that would only happen, it also concedes, if everyone currently on a benefit stayed on it for life. Yet that doesn’t happen. The vast majority of those on the DPB use it – entirely as intended – as a temporary shelter until they find work. The $50 billion scare number is a dishonest attempt to get headlines by libeling people on the DPB, and on other benefits.

The reality is far less dramatic. Elsewhere within the working paper, the level of those reliant on welfare is predicted to rise from 13% now to 16% in 2050. That’s only a three per cent rise spread over 40 years, in the context of an ageing population that will inevitably generate more people on sickness and invalids benefits. So, where’s the crisis? In that sense, there isn’t one. ‘Crisis’ is a word that I would reserve for the health system, under Tony Ryall. A ruckus over welfare is merely a political diversion from the debacle unfolding in health.

If we truly want to get people off welfare and into jobs, here’s a revolutionary notion – let’s create some jobs ! At present, as Sue Bradford has pointed out, there are 255,000 people in this country who are wanting work, but who currently can’t find it. We don’t have a welfare crisis, we have a jobs crisis. Why on earth would the working party – or the government – think that it is a good and timely priority to add to the numbers already seeking work, by pushing more people out to look for non-existent jobs?

The driver here is ideology, not reality. The Key government seems to believe that being on welfare is caused by a failing in the person concerned, and by their enablers in the medical and education system. This is a ideologically blinkered approach that sees society as essentially individualistic – one looks in vain in the working paper for any recognition that getting people back into work involves a triangular partnership between the individual, government and the private sector.

Back in April, Scoop examined in depth the welfare insurance system in Canada, that Rebstock seems so smitten by. In practice in Canada, this has led to a tightening of eligibility and the shedding of government responsibility for welfare – and not so incidentally, the scheme has also served as a mechanism for improving the state of the government’s books. Most of the benefit costs of welfare are not only transferred out of the state system, but the fund that builds up also gets counted as a plus on the books, thus potentially lowering the cost of borrowing. No wonder the government is keen on it.

If a less doctrinaire approach was being taken, Rebstock and Co would be looking for ways in which government could create jobs – by say, investing in state housing construction, given the pressing social needs in this area. It would be looking at the staffing levels in Social Welfare and learning from the job placement and medical treatment programmes for the long term unemployed that drove unemployment benefit levels down to record lows in the mid 2000s. Clearly, if the government really wanted to improve welfare outcomes, it shouldn’t be firing the Social Welfare staff who made those previous gains possible. It would also be looking at the nationwide provision of affordable childcare – and the working party would be condemning the government policies that are actually driving up costs in this area. But this working group is not engaged in a genuine consultation. It is on a journey towards pre-determined solutions.



So John Key thinks we have to stay in Afghanistan to make the country a ‘stabilised place’ lest it once again become a breeding ground for global terrorism.

Several questions arise :
1. Is our effort succeeding – is Afghanistan now a more ‘stabilised place’ than it was a year ago? (Obviously not.)
2. If not, and if local efforts to contain the Taliban are going backwards, is our commitment to stabilize Afghanistan open–ended? Will we have to keep our troops in Afghanistan for decades until it becomes ‘stabilised‘?
3. Somalia used to be a breeding ground for global terrorism. Yet we control that threat from outside Somalia, not from within it. Why can’t we do the same from outside Afghanistan – as even US vice-president Joe Biden has been urging via his “From the Sea” containment policy?

Just asking. It is no discredit to the memory of the soldier killed last week to question whether we should be there at all. The Dutch – who had 24 troops killed during their deployment – have just decided that the Afghanistan mission is not worth the waste of any more lives. What does John Key know that the Dutch don’t?


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    1. 10 Responses to “On welfare bashing, and driving up a dead end in Afghanistan”

    2. By Anne Else on Aug 9, 2010 | Reply

      Excellent analysis, Gordon, except for one tiny thing. You write, “The vast majority of those on the DPB use it – entirely as intended – as a temporary shelter until they find work.” In fact the realities of the labour market for most women and for sole parents, even if they can access WFF, mean that the main way women are able to get off the DPB is still by repartnering and thus regaining access to a share of a male wage. It is still very difficult for the majority of sole parents to find paid work which produces enough income, for long enough, to keep themselves and their children – and also cover the rising costs of childcare you point to.

    3. By Kerry on Aug 9, 2010 | Reply

      Without wishing to denigrate Anne’s comment, I would demur.

      Women also leave the DPB if all their children grow past the magical 18-year-old threshold (or do a bunk and apply for ‘unsupported child’ at 16/17 years) – which shifts them onto either unemployed or sickness/invalid’s benefits, if the change in circumstances still leaves them unable to gain sufficient employment to survive.

      ‘Repartnering’ is one of MSD’s favourite ways of shifting women off benefits, however, if they can find any sufficient evidence of ‘a relationship similar to marriage’ – to which end ‘Dob in a DPB’ campaigns were run in the 80’s & 90’s.
      I can’t think of a climate in which anyone would be less likely to develop a meaningful relationship, than that in which a single date could have one’s neighbours/acquaintances rushing to supply information to the local WINZ switchboard. One of their most counter-productive campaigns ever.

      Given that women generally are earning somewhere between 84 – 86% of men’s wages/salaries in work of equal value, the blindingly obvious solution to getting women off benefits would be to police employers and see who’s ripping off their female staffmembers. However, that’s very unlikely to happen in the current climate, where the main aim is just to bash beneficiaries and portray women as incapable of being useful members of society.

    4. By Marama on Aug 10, 2010 | Reply

      just keep writing please Gordon! We need this analysis to keep coming.

    5. By IrishBill on Aug 10, 2010 | Reply

      The driver here is ideology, not reality. The Key government seems to believe that being on welfare is caused by a failing in the person concerned, and by their enablers in the medical and education system.

      I’m not sure I agree with you on this point. The driver here is very much reality. The reality of labour v.s. capital.

      If the government really believed in individual responsibility they wouldn’t be subsidising corporates’ carbon emissions or providing any of the other help they have to capital and the capitalist class.

      I think the move on welfare, like the move on employment law, is about gearing society towards the short-term needs of capital. After all many beneficiaries are simply workers who are not currently working. The harder it is for them to survive on a benefit (and it is already hard) the lower they will price their labour.

      The next step will be to lower the minimum wage by freezing it and letting inflation (due to rise nearly 6% by year end) rapidly eat away at it.

      I imagine they’ll claim raising the minimum wage when unemployment is so high is “irresponsible” and “unfair to low wage workers”.

    6. By richgraham on Aug 10, 2010 | Reply

      You say “… being on welfare is primarily a failure of attitude by beneficiaries …” and then belittle that statement.
      ALL the beneficiary bludgers I know are well-educated pakeha middle class people, full of self-righteous ‘world owes me a living’ attitudes. All are or have been capable of real work and making a contribution but have declined to do so because of the incentives of the welfare system. Of course there are plenty of deserving beneficiaries, but you don’t seem to be interested in the bludgers – pity, they exist, in large numbers too, and if in work, could support the genuine deserving beneficiaries. What have you got to say about them ?

    7. By Reid on Aug 10, 2010 | Reply

      Mr richgraham
      Are all of your alleged ‘middle class’ friends bankers?
      I doubt that they are the targets for the reforms, real people, real families living in poverty without the ability to purchase basic needs in NZ .

      This continuing Welfare reform nonsense also serves to take the spotlight off the Great Void. The absence of any plans for real Job creation, business innovations and other positive social reforms.

      We already funded a Job summit -so can you ask your very bad friends if we get a refund on it?

    8. By Rachel Power on Aug 11, 2010 | Reply

      I saw a relapse into bruxism ( the gnashing of one’s own 50’s mercury ridden teeth) when John Key recently said he was perfectly comfortable with the CEO of TVNZ quite blithely, and regularly, spending $100 plus on the sort of bottle of wine they have become accustomed to in the public sector.
      The day before Key had witnessed, and corroborated as perfectly correct political exigency, the fact that any ‘femme sole’ should not be able to receive that same beneficence; per week/ per child to nourish that child’s being either physically/ mentally/ spiritually/ geographically/ educationally or environmentally.
      The hegemony of ‘Planet Parnell’ where, I remind people, Key took away three properties to to create his small footprint on the land.

    9. By Victorina Kean on Feb 26, 2011 | Reply

      What an idiotic post! Clearly your sample size is so small as to be meaningless, and you have an ideal ‘deserving’ beneficiary in mind – someone who is poor, ‘lower class’, Maori or Pacific Island, and uneducated.
      Well, newsflash, richgraham… Some of us on UB *are* white, and educated – but if the jobs aren’t there, they just aren’t!
      I suppose my mistake was being on the DPB all those years ago. Maybe I should have had the abortion my baby’s father so charmingly suggested as a solution?
      Then I’d have climbed a corporate ladder instead of raising a child and getting an education.
      Because trust me on this, employers hire on – well, I’d love to know what basis really, but youth seems to trump experience, and looks trump education…

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