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Marc My Words: Welfare 'Aint Always Fair'!

Marc My Words.
By Marc Alexander MP. 5 February 2004

Welcome to the first 'Marc my Words' for 2004. As with all issues, feedback is important and I look forward to your comments and suggestions. If there are topical issues you would like to raise, I will be pleased to hear from you. Although the year is still in its infancy, it looks to me as though it's shaping up to be a politically defining one. I hope readers have had a wonderful break and that your families are well.

Welfare 'aint always fair'!

There are always two (or more) points of view about anything; especially when we consider the philosophy underpinning NZ's welfare system. There are those who genuinely believe that the prime function of government is to redistribute wealth created by individuals to ensure equality of outcome for all. This view conveniently pushes aside the germane question which should be posed regarding a person's responsibility to look out for themselves, and instead focuses on what people have, rather than what they are prepared to do, to achieve what they have.

While some may argue that the measure of a successful welfare system is the level of care for those who have no choice but to seek State support (as Beneficiaries Advisory Service spokesman Jim Lamb argues), surely a more pertinent question is, what opportunity has the beneficiary been given to not require state support? And, if an opportunity has been extended, a secondary question would be 'what effort has that person given to it'? After all, social obligations must cut both ways.

We need to draw a distinction here; 'equality of opportunity' and 'equality of outcome' are not the same thing. While most would accept that all Kiwis should expect a fair go at the former, we cannot be held hostage by the latter. And besides, not all beneficiaries are equal either.

Superannuitants have paid taxes and have earned their pensions. No one can reasonably argue that such payments are undeserved - quite the reverse - most receive less than they deserve relative to their contribution. I am opposed to means testing, since that would penalise those who saved wisely (and have forgone lifestyle choices), and instead reward those who did not. Similarly, those on genuine disability and sickness benefits receive far less than they ought. It is part of our civil obligation as a compassionate and socially-just society to provide quality of life. Nevertheless, nothing is more dispiriting nor disempowering than being one of the 113,000 on sickness and invalid benefits (costing taxpayers a whopping $1.5 billion per year!), especially when timely medical intervention could help many back into gainful employment and independence. (I suggest that to treat people more quickly than at our current snail's pace, for humanitarian and economic reasons we must invite more private healthcare providers to partner with the public health sector).

Child poverty is also a major concern with a recent UNICEF report showing that 29% of Kiwi kids are born and bred into poverty. It must be unacceptable to all thinking New Zealanders that any child should come into life so disadvantaged. While we can accept that people should lie in the bed of their own making, that is a tenable position only if they have been given the wherewithal to make a choice. Solutions must not just address the financial situation of those parents but also give the necessary parenting support.

The answer, it seems to me, is not to punish those who earn more, or create disincentives to work by raising taxes to pay for raised welfare payments (they are absurdly high already) - but to realistically lower taxes across the board so that those who do work can keep more of what they earn. For example, an extra $50 per week in the pockets of all our taxpayers - irrespective of their annual income - would do two things; it would allow those on low and middle incomes to keep an extra $50 per week of the value of their own labour, shifting them off the margins and enabling them to avoid the treadmill of dependence.

Secondly it would signal to those on higher incomes an appreciation of their contribution to our society, for the jobs they create, the economy they stimulate, and the goods and services they provide.

Dependence should never be any Government's aim, despite (if one is cynical) being a means to secure votes. Real needs demand proper address but we would have more resources to do so, with a real vision for this nation; a vision of individual empowerment through greater choices enabled by the economy, whilst not abrogating personal responsibility in the context of family and community.

We are not here to feed the insatiable appetites of an ideological Government, abdicating our freedom, intelligence and responsibility in the process. The Government must be continually reminded that it works for us.


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