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Campbell on the govt’s plans for welfare reform

Gordon Campbell on the government’s plans for welfare reform

the old
carrot/stick schtick
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At a time of the year when family care and social generosity should be on everyone’s mind, we find Finance Minister Bill English announcing the government’s intention to get tougher on welfare in 2010. The details are still maddeningly vague, but the approach English is advocating seems to involve community agencies ‘with proven track records’ having more ‘flexibility’ in managing how welfare dollars are spent in future on families at risk. Results, not process, will be paramount.

As mentioned, the details of this reform process are still extremely vague. Yet any observers with a track record of observing welfare reform will recognise the dog whistling going on in some of the terms being used. ‘Results’ tends to mean getting people off the welfare rolls, whatever. Putting money in the hands of community agencies with ‘proven track records’ ( the buzzwords are ‘the consolidation’ and ‘aggregation’ of funds and powers ) tends to mean that the government’s ideological friends will be enabled to make money out of welfare.

Overseas, the language of ‘allowing community agencies to become more involved in the delivery of welfare’ has been a synonym for the wholesale privatization of welfare services. At a time when accountability for public monies is English’s catch-cry in every other realm of government spending, why is more flexibility - and less accountability for anything but ‘ results’ – being seen as appropriate when it comes to welfare ? Giving the experts more room to do what they do best is certainly not what the government is doing in education, over national standards.

More money, English has indicated, will not be available for this experiment in welfare delivery. Again, one might well ask – how, if at all, will administrative savings be made ? Which current community agencies will be asked to butt out, and which ones will be given primacy and freer rein ? Who is going to be running this new, brighter realm of welfare policy, and what changes are intended in the roles played by the community agencies and by the Ministry ? Meaning – how will the Ministry monitor performance from the agencies to which it will be devolving some of its own current roles ? Logically, the basis of welfare entitlements would have to change, if the social engineering that English has flagged is to be implemented.

Will, for instance, welfare benefits still be paid directly to families at risk, or to the community agencies for them to dispense ? Will those agencies then be empowered to with-hold money in order to induce people into behavioural change, and ultimately off the welfare rolls entirely ? Is that what getting ‘results’ will mean in practice – and will such results become the basis of future funding for the agencies involved? The potential for abuse in this situation of dependency ( not to mention in the competition between agencies for the access rights to service delivery) is obvious. What kind of monitoring and safeguards against abuse does the government have in mind, if any ?

At this stage, there are more questions than answers about what the government has in mind. The potential for dehumanizing, intrusive action by private sector agencies in the lives of vulnerable families is quite high. Unemployment, after all, is still rising, and the economy is barely in recovery mode. For many families at risk, the jobs are simply not there - and to use the jargon - ‘the labour market continues to be de-leveraged.’ Cracking down on welfare families at such a time would be punitive, and unjust. Yet, as indicated, this policy is probably less about saving taxpayer money or helping the vulnerable, than it is about creating opportunities to make money from their plight.


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