Key’s emphasis on welfare misplaced
The riots in Britain lent extra urgency to Prime Minister John Key’s speech to the National Party conference last weekend, during which he unveiled a package of measures on how the welfare system should respond to teenagers on benefits.
The fact that the focus would be on tightening the conditions for offering state support for young people – rather than on, say, creating the jobs likely to avoid them going on benefits in the first place – was revealing.
All around the world, governments are finding it difficult to cope with an entire generation of young people who seem to be largely surplus to requirements, at least within a global economy wedded to cheap labour and jobdestroying technology.
In that respect, the speech had an air of micro-managing the deck chairs on the Titanic.
More details of the Government’s crackdown on welfare, Key indicated, would follow in the run-up to the election.
Once the necessary changes to the Privacy and Education legislation have been passed, almost all beneficiaries aged between 16 and 18 will have their benefit payments managed by welfare bureaucrats, with only those on invalids benefits being spared the new regime.
The cost of rent and power bills will be automatically deducted and a limited amount of discretionary income would be allowed on a payment card, which will be unable to be used to buy alcohol or cigarettes.
All 18-year-old mothers would be expected to be in work or training, Key explained, by the time their child was one.
Today, there are about 13,000 16 and 17-year-olds not in work, education or training.
Also, about 1600 16 and 17-year-olds are living on a special benefit, because it would be unsafe for them to be living at home. No-one knows how many of those 13,000 young teenagers on welfare are actively seeking work, and failing to find it.
What is known is that when work is available, the benefit numbers go down. That’s why the dole numbers reduced sharply from 40,000 to 18,000 between 2006 and 2008 – and then reached a peak of 62,000 after the global recession hit, before declining slightly this year.
As even the Social Development Ministry website concedes, unemployment is not because of a sudden outbreak of irresponsibility among today’s teens, but to changes in economic conditions.
The current welfare statistics do, however, contain an alarming trend.
to 24-year-olds comprised 22.5 per cent of those on the dole. Today, they comprise nearly 30 per cent.
Over the same period, there has been an almost identical rise among those aged from 40 to 54. If the cause was one of motivation, it surely couldn’t be striking teenagers and mature workers alike, at the same time. Nor, in any case, is the condition particularly long-lasting.
Currently, 98.3 per cent of those on the dole receive it for less than four years, and 72 per cent for less than a year.
All of which suggests that the best way of getting people – of all ages – off welfare is to manage the economy in a way that encourages job creation.
For now, though, the Government seems far more focused on cracking down on teenagers out of work than in fostering policies of full employment.
Gordon Campbell is an experienced political journalist and columnist who has written for The Listener and Scoop.