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A Welfare System Gone Wrong

A Welfare System Gone Wrong

This week the Column looks at a welfare system that is undermining our society, and asks why such flawed policies have not been modernised.

Over the weekend I heard a story that literally made my blood boil: an acquaintance’s 40-year-old son-in-law has just announced he is leaving his wife of 10 years so he can quit his job, go on the dole and smoke dope – apparently his friends, who drift along in a State-funded cannabis haze, have persuaded him that life is so good on the dole that he has decided to give it a go.

What sort of a society have we become, when able-bodied men can even consider that they can legally opt out of the responsibility to earn a living and provide for their family? How can it be that they can expect the State to pick up their responsibilities with virtually no consequences or obligations?

Tragically, this Labour Government has changed the underlying expectation of being on a benefit – turning it from a helping hand in times of need, into a lifetime right without strings attached for those who want to take advantage of the system.

Take the PACE (Pathways to Arts and Cultural Employment) programme, which entices would-be artists out of the workforce and onto the dole to pursue their art and culture without the hassle of having to work for a living. Once on PACE, they are secure in the knowledge that the taxpayer will support them…for as long as it takes them to get the job they want. The problem is that there are no checks and balances in this programme. Caseworkers are not trained to assess whether the would-be artist has talent. Instead, they provide income support to people who could work but – because the Government has chosen to politically support the arts sector – aren’t required to.

In my mind, unemployment programmes that allow able-bodied people to quit their jobs to go onto the dole are a disgrace. They are fundamentally unfair and unwise. It is completely irresponsible of a government to allow people to claim early retirement on one hand, while holding a gun to taxpayers’ heads – forcing them to pay up – with the other. And Associate Minister of Arts, Judith Tizard’s personal attacks against anyone who dares to raise concerns about PACE will not conceal the fact that, at a time of unprecedented labour shortages, the Government is forcing taxpayers to pay the dole to able bodied people aspiring artists who could and should be working for a living.

Welfare should only be available to the genuinely needy. It should not be provided in the long-term for people who are quite capable of working but choose not to. Take the case of Mike, a fit and able young man who went on the dole straight from school. He spent the next 13 years stagnating on a benefit, wasting his life – and taxpayers’ money – and driving his family to despair. That was until his girlfriend threatened to leave him if he didn’t get a job. Within two weeks of the ultimatum he found work and he hasn’t looked back since!

Having monitored the workings of the welfare system as a Member of Parliament since 1996, I have now come to the conclusion that the system, as we know it, has lost its way. It is time for an overhaul to create a modern programme of welfare suitable for the 21st Century.

I have already mentioned in this column that the main DPB should be replaced with an unemployment benefit for single parents, in line with what has been seen to work overseas. This benefit should be designed to reflect the fact that when a couple splits up, or a woman on her own decides to have a baby, the taxpayer cannot be expected to provide for that family in the long term. Instead, factored into the decision to split or to have a child should be the understanding that the single parent will be expected to become the family’s primary breadwinner.

The dole now provides tens of thousands of able-bodied men and women – who are quite capable of working – with long-term income support. This must also be modernised. It should be replaced with a programme of temporary assistance for the unemployed which would encourage three-months of energetic and proactive jobsearch to be followed – if the unemployed person hasn’t already found a job – by full-time Work for the Dole.

Such Work-for-the-Dole programmes should be modelled on the workforce: if a work requirement is not complied with the benefit should be cancelled, and if a participant turns up late their pay should be docked.

Maybe it’s time we revamped the other benefits as well. The current situation, where tens of thousands of people are on a Sickness Benefit – some for over a decade – is indicative of a benefit that no longer functions properly. It is meant to be a temporary benefit for people too sick to work. With appropriate medical intervention and rehabilitation, such people should be able to move off it in a timely fashion, with the incapacitated going onto the Invalid Benefit.

The Invalid Benefit should also be modernised. Most countries now require people with disabilities to participate in the workforce – if they can. Surely it’s time that New Zealand followed suit, ensuring that no-one who is able to play their part is locked out, but encouraged to contribute at their own level.

If the benefit system were modernised, welfare could be returned to being a hand-up to work, independence, and a better future – that was the concept that underpinned Michael Joseph Savage’s original vision for welfare. It was a system that served us well until the Labour Government undermined it in the Seventies.

With too many jobs available and not enough workers, the time is ripe to return welfare to being a hand-up – not a hand-out; returning welfare to being a system that supports people in need, instead of one that traps them in dependency – and traps the taxpayers into having to pay a bigger welfare bill than necessary.

If you – and your acquaintances – agree, please let me know!

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