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Marc My Words: Welfare should make well, be fair

Marc My Words…
7 July 2006
Political comment
By Marc Alexander

Welfare should produce wellness but also be fair

An issue has struck this week which deserves some critical thinking: a proposal towards checks and balances on welfare recipients to ensure taxpayers aren't being mugged by individuals taking advantage to produce negative outcomes. This issue has arisen out of the present focus on the deaths of the Kahui twins at the hands of a large dysfunctional welfare dependant family.

There is now talk of government plans to target welfare beneficiaries who may be ripping off the system. The initiative (if it comes to fruition) is most welcome. Those identified include clusters of beneficiaries such as drug addicts, alcoholics, those suffering extreme obesity and the able-bodied who simply do not want to work. It must be pointed out at the outset that not everyone on benefits should be tarred by the same brush. One of our biggest mistakes has been to lump all beneficiaries into one amorphous grouping with the result that we can no longer discern the deserving from the less warranting. We need to know who we are talking about if we are to compose appropriate initiatives. There's a hell of a difference between those dispossessed of work in the short-term from the persistently unemployed. Similarly those on sickness benefits with genuine ailments are distinct from those pushed onto it for the politically expedient reason of artificially lowering unemployment numbers.

In at least one respect now is the time to undertake the crackdown because of the relatively small number of hard-core beneficiaries on which to focus. Those on the unemployment benefit for example, have plummeted to a 20 year low - down to 41,000. One caveat: there's obviously a need to treat these figures with a shot of skepticism since some of those who have moved off one benefit simply go onto another. For instance, the number of people receiving a sickness benefit has grown 47 percent since June 2000 while invalids have shot up by 38 percent. So while this Labour government loves to boast about record-low unemployment, the reality is that even with a critical shortage of labour, welfare numbers are not declining as much as expected: shifting from the dole onto the sickness benefit - also avoids any requirement for work-testing or genuine accountability. In fact the lack of answerability is evident by the ridiculously small number of people who have gone from such benefits (68) into work in spite of the governments expensive Paths project to facilitate the transition. Predictably, Labours Minister of tennis balls, Benson-Pope, has blamed National (just how long does Labour have to be the government before they start accepting the blame for their own mounting failures?).

Moreover, the number of people on the sickness benefit for 10 years or more have risen 63 percent in the same period, while the number of people granted such a benefit for stress or depression has increased by a whopping 128 percent. Clearly the Government is not only failing some of these sickness beneficiaries who genuinely need better help, but also increasing the unemployability of those they inadvertently provide a lifestyle devoid of accountability to taxpayers who are forced to foot the bill. The real tragedy is that those with legitimate needs are denied sufficient resourcing because welfare cheats drain off available funds that could be used to help them. Instead these swindlers expect everyone else to owe them a work-free living.

Not content to syphon off erronious public sympathy, or accept that the whole concept of welfarism has been hijacked by the trendy left to keep people dependant and hostage with their votes, some are now claiming that’s its really about deprivation and destitution (e.g. Minto).

Its all very well to blame poverty as the root cause of dysfunctionality, family violence and child neglect, but the research shows it’s really the other way around: it is dysfunctional families which cause the problems of poverty and violence. According to Treasury, household incomes have risen at all levels since the end of the nineties and, thanks to the punitive tax regime of Labour, income inequalities have fallen (forcing high achievers to either leave NZ, pay higher taxes, or give up trying).

While those with real needs miss out on quality and timely healthcare, judicious rehabilitation to facilitate a life worth living, and community organizations try to do their best but go under-funded, money continues to be wasted on some sickness beneficiaries who are apparently incapable of work but more than proficient in jumping over fences to burgle their neighbors and beating up their spouse and kids.

The problem with raising these kinds of issues is that you open yourself up to the attack of being a redneck welfare basher who is self-righteously being judgmental about people who are down on their luck. Well, bollocks to that. Everyone will have a range of views about this. From my perspective, the 'hide your head in the sand' approach is nothing more than feel good nonsense that masks the underlying problems - inadvertently making them worse, but socially safe and sanctimoniously filled with faux compassion.

Welfare dependency has allowed the state to involve itself in the family dynamic conspiring to let people avoid their responsibilities. Whether we care to admit it, the decision to have a family becomes less of one when you know the state will ameliorate the consequences if it doesn't work out as well as expected. How many business ventures would be started if it were not your own money at risk? The problem is that while willing adults can escape much of the burden for family failure, the same cannot be said for the children who are undeservedly denied the right to be nurtured by a family that puts them first.

We shouldn't be surprised that the family structure has altered as a result. Families used to be forged by mutually benefitting lifelong partnerships fuelled by commitment. But the introduction of mitigating economic consequences by successive governments has allowed for less considered decisions. It is easier to walk away when someone else pays. It's no surprise therefore that the introduction of the DPB (1972) coincided with a huge surge in one parent families. We now have over 100,000 on the DPB. Now, it has to be said that women in abusive and destructive relationships should be helped in every way possible, but in meeting these genuine cases we opened the door to a huge misuse of public funds as insurance to those who took their marriage vows lightly. We are now paying the price.

Thirty-four years later we have some of their children's children growing up without ever experiencing the benefits of a family structure. Their world views are founded on a familiarity with having a hand out rather than the work/reward relationship; of being able to get by without the motivation to reach their potential, knowing that the state will stump up with whatever is needed.

So where to from here?

Clearly, there are no simple solutions. We need to adequately fund the help people sometimes need to get back on their feet without giving perverse incentives to relinquish personal obligation to be self reliant. Diminishing consequence for personal decisions on a permanent basis helps no-one. We should be mindful that every dollar going towards a person's welfare payment has come from a taxpayer who earned it to benefit his or her own family. It is for that reason that we must ensure that it is spent wisely and for maximum mutual advantage.

In an ideal world parents who choose to have children should be fully liable for them. We should therefore never allow deadbeat dads and mums to just abdicate their responsibilities. The decision to have children is too important to be taken for granted. While it may be difficult to take up fulltime work while raising very young children, the complete removal of the obligation to be employed when and where possible shows a huge disrespect to those who do work to pay for it (and who miss out on the benefit of their own efforts). Besides the very idea that someone can receive open ended assistance beyond what may be temporarily necessary not only undermines the work ethic creating a poverty trap, but more importantly, takes resources away from others in genuine need.

It may be a real temptation to reduce complex problems into generalizations and simplistic single cause relationships but we'll never solve the welfare/poverty/dysfunction mindset by imagining they are immutably conjoined. They're not. Poverty doesn't cause dysfunction or violence or alcoholism or drug dependence or child abuse. But often it can work the other way - the myriad dysfunctions contribute to poverty. All welfare does is exacerbate these problems by funding them.

Now National's Judith Collins has suggested that we should take a look at 'smart cards' to stop beneficiary's miss-spending welfare payments on booze, drugs or gambling. It’s a positive move that will see commonsense imposition of accountability and responsibility. I can just imagine the howls of protest from the feel good brigade who will claim such measures will erode the recipient's human rights etc. Predictably the disconcerting Greens have already attacked the plan with the anarcho/feminist/socialist Meteria Turei claiming that "the inference is that if you're on a benefit, then the state has a right to be much more intrusive in your life."

Well, yes actually. If only for the simple reason that it's our money that's paying for it and therefore we have the right to see that it's properly targeted and sensibly spent. Few taxpayers would have a problem with supporting those in need but would balk at justifying why they should pay for kids going to school hungry, barefoot or beaten while a solo parent snorts another line up the nose before trundling off to get drunk. Or worse, getting pregnant (or someone else pregnant) with child number four, five and six which they are equally incapable of caring for. Our children ought to expect better than that.

Children are not a right but a privilege. Unfortunately some people assume the arrogance to litter our society with progeny they care nothing for other than as a meal ticket at other peoples expense. That has to change because if they don't we will only end up paying for more of the same dysfunction. Kids don't deserve to grow up with a distorted view of what family is all about, have appalling role models, and are ripe for emulating the dysfunction in their own adult lives. And the welfare model as it currently exists feeds that dysfunction.

As a civil society we must have a safety net. But a real safety net works to heal and empower not disable and ensnare. It must be focused on the restoration of a person to being independent, self-reliant. Or at least as much as is possible. The trick is to find the balance that considers the best interests of the individual and the taxpayer who pays for it. That’s where true compassion really lies.


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