Study produces more sound than light
For decades, it has been an article of faith in political circles that getting tough on welfare is a sure-fire vote winner. Welfare reform was, for example, the topic chosen by Don Brash for his second Orewa speech, after his 2004 effort on race relations had kick-started his challenge to the Clark Government.
Brash’s welfare speech in election year 2005, though, had nowhere near the same impact – and a similar fate could befall the welfare options report released recently by the Cabinet-appointed Welfare Working Group.
The recession has left few families in New Zealand untouched, and the public may be feeling more inclined to treat any rise in welfare numbers as reflecting a lack of jobs, rather than indicating a sudden nationwide aversion to work.
Regardless, the Welfare Working Group seems to think time has stood still since Orewa 2005. It proposes stiffer work tests, time limits on welfare, an unemployment insurance scheme and the screening of those on sickness and disability benefits – all in response to a situation of 338,000 people of working age being on benefits.
The crisis implied by that huge number, though, is somewhat misleading in that 85,000 have severe mental or physical disabilities, 58,000 have been documented by medical professionals as sick, 112,000 are raising children alone, and 65,000 are actively looking for work – which takes care of 78 per cent of the problem.
The proportion of our working-age population on disability benefits – and our levels of spending on sickness and disability in general – are well below OECD averages.
In fact, before the global recession hit, dole numbers in New Zealand had shrunk to record low levels, with only 1700 being on the dole for four years or more.
When jobs exist, the evidence suggests people will work – and when they don’t, they can’t. Room for improvement, of course, always exists.
Fresh resources and case management would make early intervention feasible, and might help some people now on sickness and invalids benefits into work, at least part-time. In general though, the climate for employment is showing few signs of improvement.
Lasting solutions will require action by central government, employers and investors, because they alone have the resources to create jobs.
No amount of positive thinking by a solo mother, for example, will create a job at her local supermarket if it is laying off staff.
Many will find it puzzling why that simple reality seems so difficult for the Wel- fare Working Group to grasp.
Could government resources be better directed into ‘‘make work’’ schemes and could enhanced childcare subsidies make a dent in the dole and DPB numbers?
Alas, there is little analysis of such issues in the welfare report, which is mainly devoted to punitive measures intended to change the mindset of beneficiaries and drive them into the job market, in search of largely non-existent positions.
The welfare group report seems to be somewhat out of step with the reality being experienced by most New Zealanders.
Gordon Campbell is an experienced political journalist and columnist who has written for The Listener and Scoop.