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Newman: Your Chance to Speak out on Welfare Reform

Your Chance to Speak Out on Welfare Reform
Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman

I am very concerned by Labour's expansion of the welfare state and would like to see whether there is support in New Zealand for a campaign for welfare reform.

Last year I saw the results of a small poll on welfare: 96 percent of those polled believed that 'welfare support should be provided for people who are in need and cannot support themselves'; 92 percent believed that 'welfare recipients should be required to take some action, be it paid work, volunteer work, or getting some useful training if they are to continue to receive welfare benefits'; and 71 percent believed 'there should be a time limit for the number of years an able-bodied person can receive the unemployment benefit'.

Those figures indicated to me that there may be a mood for welfare reform: by this I mean a return to welfare providing temporary support for the able-bodied, requiring active participation in organised days of work, education and training, and the introduction of time limits to create a sense of urgency and create safeguards against people like Jules Mikus - the convicted murderer of Teresa Cormack whom the sentencing Judge described as having "sponged off the taxpayers of New Zealand" for 20 years.

Welfare reform can be a spectacular success in transforming individual lives and an entire country, as the United States experience has shown.

In 1996 I was fortunate enough to visit Wisconsin, a dairy state of 4 million people. Governor Tommy Thompson - elected in 1986 on a platform of welfare reform - wanted to transform the state from a basket-case to a prosperous economy. Today Wisconsin has one of the highest standards of living in the US, and the state's welfare reform programme has been passed into Federal law.

Essentially, using a programme of time limits and organised days, Wisconsin has reduced its equivalent of the DPB from 110,000 to 2,000. The people who remain on the benefit have serious problems - drug and alcohol dependency, mental health problems, and the like - but the welfare department's goal is to provide sufficient support that they too can become independent of the state.

For the first time in recent US history, welfare rolls have halved, helping to drive an economic boom. New Zealanders too deserve to lift our standard of living back to first world status. Welfare reform could be the driving force to kick-start our economic transformation.

Reform would return welfare to the original plan envisaged by New Zealand's welfare state founder, Michael Joseph Savage. He created a welfare system that gave a helping hand to those in need, while providing temporary support to the able-bodied. It was a system that worked well for more than thirty years - there were never more than 40,000 people on welfare. As a result of Labour's changes to the system over the years, 400,000 New Zealanders are dependent on the state, with our country now leading the OECD in family breakdown. The human cost of welfare is massive: intergenerational dependency, fatherlessness, damaged children, lost potential and limited opportunities.

The financial cost is also massive. More than one-third of all government spending goes toward people dependent on the state. Before Labour changed the system back in the seventies, for every one person on a benefit there were twenty-eight full-time workers. Today there are just four full-time workers for every beneficiary, and with forecast "growth" of more than 5,000 additional beneficiaries each year, the cost is unsustainable.

Welfare reform is at the heart of a better future for New Zealand. With welfare reform, we could be prosperous again, and ease the financial stress that plagues so many working families. Welfare reform would give hundreds of thousands of children a decent chance to have a better life. Welfare reform would ensure that we stopped paying people to do nothing and waste their lives. Instead, we could bring dignity and hope to those who are presently locked out of any real stake in society.

Welfare reform would improve the nation's health and our educational achievements. It would reduce child abuse, teenage pregnancy and youth suicide. With welfare reform there would be less family breakdown and less crime.

If you are supportive of a campaign for welfare reform - providing security for those who cannot support themselves and giving a hand up to work, independence and a better future for those who can - then please contact me on

If you are able to send my column onto others who may have an opinion, that would be even better.

Further, why not come along to our November regional conferences and join me in a discussion of welfare reform: Saturday 16th in Dunedin, Sunday 17th in Christchurch, Saturday 23rd and Sunday 1st December in Auckland. Check out

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