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Whatever happened to community responsibility?

Wednesday 26 January, 2005

Whatever happened to community responsibility?

Mr Brash’s proposals for welfare reform would see greater responsibility for the needy and vulnerable in our society passed from the State to church and community agencies, as was the case in the 1990s, says Catholic social justice agency Caritas.

Catholic social teaching says that our society is judged on how it treats the most poor and vulnerable. “Church agencies were in the front line dealing with the poverty, ill-health, overcrowding and misery caused by the 1991 benefit cuts, and many of the ‘Kiwi battlers’ that Mr Brash addresses also experienced this poverty, either first hand, or through their relatives, friends and neighbours” said Caritas research and advocacy officer Lisa Beech.

“Debates around the shape of benefit assistance are necessary and ongoing, however it is noticeable that Mr Brash does not address those who receive benefits, but rather those who he believes resent contributing taxes towards community welfare,” she said.

Caritas brought Fr Fred Kammer of Catholic Charities USA to New Zealand in 1999 to discuss the effects of US welfare reform. Fr Kammer told New Zealand church groups that following welfare reform, initial requests for emergency assistance from church agencies across the United States increased by 19-20%, with some states reporting increases as high as 300%.

Caritas supports and encourages moves which assist people into employment, but prefers supportive measures which help overcome barriers to employment such as discrimination against people with disabilities, or the cost and quality of childcare, rather than punitive measures that punish people who are not able to find work.

Caritas also strongly opposes the introduction of measures which would reduce assistance to women who have additional children while receiving a benefit. These measures were strongly opposed by the US Catholic Bishops as being likely to increase abortions.

“One US study found that family caps increased abortions among welfare recipients, while others have found little impact on fertility, but substantially increases hardship of families with newborn babies,” said Lisa Beech. She said Caritas will not support any policy that would lead to an increase in pressures on women to end pregnancies.

Lisa Beech said Mr Brash did not take into account the impact of deinstitutionalization of people in psychiatric hospitals and similar institutions in considering the rise in sickness and invalids benefit numbers. “In addition, work capacity testing of ACC recipients in the late 1990s also had an impact – many people did not find work through this process, but were simply transferred to another government department.”

When Caritas wrote to Mr Brash in 2004 asking for National’s policy on family incomes and child poverty, his reply was that “policy in this area was still under consideration”.

“His party needs to consider its position on child poverty before introducing measures which would increase the hardship of children and their families,” said Lisa Beech. Caritas will continue to study and respond to National’s welfare reform policy as well as other parties’ policies on welfare, social security and child poverty.


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