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Welfare Symposium Provides Food For Thought

Tue, 17 Aug 2004

Newman Online - Welfare Symposium Provides Food For Thought

Welfare Symposium Provides Food For Thought

This week, Newman On-Line reflects on the Symposium for welfare Reform, and considers just a few arguments against New Zealand’s welfare dependency problem.

Last Saturday’s Welfare Symposium was, according to attendees, an outstanding success. Bringing together academics and practitioners from around the globe – and interspersing their contributions with aspirational stories from those who have escaped the welfare trap – created an interesting and varied snapshot of social welfare.

Sadly, given the event’s Parliamentary nature – and the considerable effort made to ensure that Members of Parliament and welfare spokesmen from other parties were invited to contribute – it was disappointing that no other political party representative came along. With welfare destroying so many life chances – particularly of children – on a daily basis, their non-attendance sent a strong signal to delegates that their concern about welfare is only skin deep.

Unease about welfare in New Zealand springs from the widespread damage that long-term dependency is now causing. Having changed from a system that successfully provided security for those who were unable to fend for themselves, and a hand up to work for the able-bodied in temporary need, welfare has now become a trap. Back in the 1970s, when the system worked well, there were 28 workers to every beneficiary – now there are four to one.

In light of the Government’s claims that unemployment is at historically low levels, New Zealand’s growing welfare dependency problem can be seen in the statistics: when unemployment peaked in 1991 as a result of the sharemarket crash, there were 298,000 people of working age on the four main benefits of the dole, DPB, Sickness and Invalid benefits. Today, there are 299,000 people on these four main benefits. In spite of the buoyant economy, Treasury projects that over 24,000 more people will join the welfare rolls over the next three years.

At a time when the country is in the grip of a critical shortage of skilled and unskilled workers, these growing numbers of beneficiaries are a clear sign that Labour policy encourages too many people to stay on welfare. The point is this: given our small population, it is inconceivable that more than a relatively small proportion of those on welfare are completely incapable of contributing in some way. Further, given the critical state of our labour markets, and the fact that a lack of workers is now holding the country back, the Government should be doing far more to encourage beneficiaries back to work.

The Symposium heard that the greatest success in this area has been achieved by linking the requirement to work with an investment in providing individual support. The problem is that those who have been on benefits in the long-term, and whose lives are not geared around a 40-hour working week, need to be supported to overcome their individual barriers to work. Whether that support is provided through childcare, transport or relocation costs, mentoring or financial planning advice, there must be a strong expectation that those on long-term welfare – including sole parents whose children are at school – must get organised and be available for work.

Social Research Director at Australia’s Centre for Independent Studies Professor Peter Saunders advised that “The Swedes, the Germans, the French…all continental Europeans have an expectation that single parents will go back into the labour market, at least part-time, at least once the youngest child starts school. We are – in Britain, New Zealand and Australia – way out of line on this issue, and I think it’s a mistake.”

Former Minister of Welfare Reform in Tony Blair’s Labour Government the Hon Frank Field described the collapse in family values and rise in dysfunctional families that has occurred in Britain, as a result of single mums from single parent families having children very young and trying to raise them without their father’s or grandparents’ support. He went on to explain that weak work requirements mean that, in Britain, more sole parents leave the benefit because they find partners than because they find jobs.

Professor Lawrence Mead, from New York University, outlined the US success in welfare reform and cautioned New Zealand against listening to the critics – the academic world and welfare groups all said reform would not work, but were wrong. Outstanding results were achieved when programmes were implemented to help long-term beneficiaries sort out their private lives, so they were organised enough to take on a job. This acted as a deterrent to malingering – those who could work left the welfare rolls as soon as they realized that they would be required to take a job.

The Hon Michael Bassett described how New Zealand was now ‘farming’ beneficiaries, and used an analogy of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto to describe the “Iron Triangle of beneficiaries, politicians and bureaucrats, which protects the status quo and resists needed change”.

He went on to state that “No major political party has been prepared accurately to describe the role welfare plays in the steady destruction of the two-parent family, or the rise in all other forms of welfare, or the climbing levels of anti-social behaviour, crime and road accidents that are now an inextricable concomitant of welfare. It’s as though the politicians don’t want to know. Some mutter irritably, but they keep on paying out. A few whacky social agendas support the status quo too. Militant feminists glorify the notion that the DPB has released women from dependence on men, conveniently overlooking the social and financial consequences of welfare on the women themselves, and on their children, in whose future we all share an interest. Reform just keeps on being relegated to the too-hard basket.”

Hon Roger Douglas – a passionate advocate of individualized superannuation savings – outlined his long-held belief that giving people, who have been locked out of participation, a stake in society should be at the center of any major reform of the welfare system. Author Alan Duff launched a stinging criticism of Maori leadership which, he claimed, is keeping Maori locked in the past, in a culture of tribalism and blame, rather than requiring them to take responsibility and look ahead.

Ultimately, the Symposium was about children. As it stands, welfare is paying New Zealand children to fail. For the sake of our kids, we must bring in an effective programme of reform that liberates families – who deserve better than a benefit – into a future of independence and opportunity, away from the control of the State.


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