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Professor Calls For Major Review Of Social Policy

27 January 2005

AUT Professor Calls For Major Review Of Social Policy

It’s time for a major overhaul of New Zealand’s social policy priorities to address the problems of poverty, overcrowding and welfare dependency, says the Director of AUT’s Institute of Public Policy, Professor Ian Shirley.

He says when it comes to social policy, New Zealand has lost its way.

“The only positive aspect of the current political debate over the state of welfare is the fact that social policy in New Zealand is firmly on the political agenda,” Professor Shirley says.

“The downside is the superficial trading of slogans between National and Labour, and their respective cheering squads, when both administrations have contributed to the decline in social policy over the past three decades.”

While there have been major changes in the direction and impact of economic policy since the late 1970s, he says both major parties have treated social policy as an after-thought – an adjunct to economic development.

“That means discussions on welfare reform focus on symptoms. Policy makers concentrate on sealing over the cracks without addressing the underlying problems.”

Professor Shirley says the current debate, fuelled by statements by National Party leader Dr Don Brash and Social Development Minister Steve Maharey, simply continues this symptomatic response.

“Whereas Dr Brash invokes the dependency model of moralists such as the American Charles Murray, who blames the victims for their predicament while at the same time ignoring the conditions that have produced the failing system of welfare, Mr Maharey employs the expanding Wellington bureaucracy to produce a social report, an initiative drawn from the unsuccessful social indicators movement of the 1960s which promised much but in practice delivered little.”

Research shows that New Zealand does have entrenched welfare dependency and an expanding social deficit that cannot be sustained, says Professor Shirley.

“Social expenditure today exceeds $37 billion a year, about 80% of all government expenditure. Yet, despite this expenditure, an estimated 30% of New Zealand children are living in poverty.”

More than 40,000 children live in overcrowded houses, with about 24% of households paying more than 30% of their income on housing costs.

The National Children’s Nutrition survey in 2002 identified 22% of households where food ran out because of lack of money.

“To these negative indicators you can add obesity, child abuse and neglect, educational underachievement and, of particular significance, declining family and household income.

“Today New Zealand is a low wage economy more in tune with countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovenia than with Finland, Italy or our close neighbour Australia.”

Professor Shirley says the 1972 Royal Commission on Social Security was the last major review to be conducted on social policy in New Zealand and since then, the economic and social environment has changed radically.

“At the time (1972), New Zealand was regarded as a world leader in terms of social policy. That too has changed.

“The one attempt to review social policy within the past 30 years was an abject failure. I refer, of course, to the 1987 Royal Commission on Social Policy which failed to provide a coherent framework for addressing social issues in a radically different environment, and as a consequence the five-volume report was dismissed by policy makers as a doorstop.”

Professor Shirley, a leading social scientist who is also Pro Vice Chancellor of research at AUT, says if policy makers are serious about reforming the state of welfare then they need to adopt a more holistic approach.

“That means integrating economic and social development. In contrast to the artificial separation of economic and social policy as advocated by treasury ministers in the 1980s and 90s, these facets of development need to be combined. Underpinning these changes is the requirement for relevant evidence-based research.”

The Institute of Public Policy, as a research and development centre, produces this type of evidence. It provides independent research and advice on economic and social development in New Zealand and comparative countries.

It has just established an Economic Development Office to coordinate its economic development programme and activities. The EDO also will be the major link between AUT and the Auckland Regional Council when the council takes up its economic leadership role in July 2005.


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