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Letter from Elsewhere: Socio-Economic Junk

Letter from Elsewhere

TVNZ Selling Socio-Economic Junk

By Anne Else

I’m fed up to the back teeth with welfare dependency. It’s an alien term imported, like so much other socio-economic junk, from the far right of the USA.

I had hoped that I wouldn’t have to explain, yet again, why it’s a bad idea to shove poor mothers out to work in crap jobs that pay poverty-level wages, while their preschool kids get minded by other poor mothers doing forced labour. But after the pathetic excuse for a documentary that TV1 screened last week, I can’t keep quiet.

The first thing we got told, in tones of solemn concern, was the huge cost of “welfare”. The numbers varied, but by the end of the programme they were up to – gasp! - $14 billion. Now that includes the whole of superannuation, by far the biggest chunk, as well as the DPB, unemployment benefit, sickness benefit, and invalids benefit, plus a raft of minor bits and pieces.

Where does this huge pool of money go? Surprise, surprise: it almost all goes straight into the tills of New Zealand shops, banks, and landlords. (You don’t catch many people on benefits griping about what the exchange rate is doing to their overseas holiday plans.) When Ruth Richardson tried to punish beneficiaries, particularly sole parents, by slashing their income, she pulled $1 billion straight out of the New Zealand economy. That acted like a hefty dose of fertiliser on the growing recession.

We saw some sad sights on that programme last week. First there was the sole parent who had left her marriage because she was being beaten up. The house was a bit grubby, but the kids weren’t. Thanks to Ruth’s cuts and Jenny’s market rents, they and their mother routinely had a few foodless days to get through somehow. Her shopping consisted mainly of bread and baked beans.

Then there was the husband and father with years of hard slog behind him who had lost his job because of ill-health. He’d done a welding course, and applied for 243 jobs, but he hadn’t got one yet. Rod Vaughan, the interviewer, asked the chap helping beneficiaries if this guy was on the scrapheap. The helper looked shocked and said, “Well, I wouldn’t say that.” But Rod had no such delicate inhibitions. He barged up to the guy and his wife and said something like, “So you’re on the scrapheap!” Great stuff, Rod. You’re lucky he didn’t hit you. I wanted to.

Another sole parent and her four kids (two of them handicapped) lived with her unemployed father in a flat meant for two or three people at most. She had lost her previous home and everything she owned in a fire. (Yes, of course she should have had insurance, but food and doctor’s bills come first, geddit?)

Oh, and we also saw a rather smug woman who had separated from her husband, become a sole parent, gone on the benefit, told the WINZ person she wanted HER job, and got it. Christine Rankin would have loved her.

Cut to the USA, and the low-down on one of the new “tough love” programmes that insists mothers of twelve week old babies go out to work, or else they will have their benefits stopped. It costs a fortune in childcare, we were told. Then we saw one of the mothers actually working in a childcare centre. Neat, eh. Some other women did try to tell Rod that the system wasn’t actually working all that well, that mothers and kids were just as poor as ever, and that they had evidence to prove it, but they didn’t get much of a chance to give him the facts and figures.

Well, here are some. Yes, a lot of “welfare mothers” are now working in childcare. They mainly work in the for-profit commercial centres, which have been quick to seize on this new pool of cheap labour. In the USA, as here, no one earns much from working in childcare – after all, it isn’t as if they were taking care of our MONEY, sweetie! The average is around $18,000 a year. But that’s not what welfare mothers get. They get around $10,000 – well below the poverty line. But morally they must feel so much better, mustn’t they, knowing that their poverty is due to low wages and not to low benefits, and that in the future their kids will surely thank them for never seeing them, because they were busy being market failures instead of welfare dependents.

What really turns my stomach is the air of fake concern that now pervades the pronouncements of the brave welfare warriors. They seem to have realised that the big stick approach they tried back in the 1990s didn’t work too well in this country. Not quite enough people, or politicians, could be brought to believe that folk like the ones in the programme were lazy and immoral, instead of just unfortunate and downtrodden.

So now they’re trying to tell us that it’s really, really bad for people to have to live on benefits, that they’ll never get anywhere doing that, and that all they need to turn their life around is a job – any job. I don’t know what the ill chap could do. I mean, he was well over 40. (Soon after the programme, he filled out a form wrongly and WINZ chopped his benefit by 40 percent.)

Sole mothers could work all night, I suppose. That would save having to bother with childcare centres. The young sole mother on her own had thought of that. She said that without the benefit she’d probably be a hooker. She was being quite practical. She’d only need a babysitter, and the pay is better than most other “unskilled” women’s jobs – certainly much better than childcare. (Soon after the programme, she nearly got evicted for not paying the rent. The landlord didn’t get had up for not fixing the taps or mending the broken window.)

Steve Maharey thinks everyone who can work (whatever that means) should have a job. But he doesn’t mean just any job, he wants them to get good jobs. He’s now busy marshalling, and paying, an army of advisers to make beneficiaries talk to them about what they’re doing to get “back into the workforce”. Looking after kids isn’t work, we all know that. It’s just something you do for fun in your spare time.

It’s the old story – one law for the rich, another for the poor. Maybe it would be better to stop mucking around and set up a system of mandatory abortions and adoptions for any mother, or couple, who can’t cope without a benefit. Either that, or turn them into an army of indentured servants to mind kids and do housework for all the worthy, decent parents, the ones with jobs.

But it could take a while to get that in place, so in the meantime, better cut those benefits again. One of those sole mothers had the gall to admit she was regularly buying her kids stuff at the two dollar shop.


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