The Timaru Herald

Shame has no place in welfare system

- Chris Trotter

The evidence is said to be compelling: ‘‘For most individual­s, working improves health and wellbeing and reduces psychologi­cal distress’’.

In fact, so convinced of the health benefits of employment is the Ministry of Social Developmen­t’s senior health adviser, David Bratt, that he equates putting patients on ‘‘welfare’’ with putting them on ‘‘an addictive debilitati­ng drug with significan­t adverse effects to both the patient and their family (whanau) not dissimilar to smoking’’.

Think about that for a moment. The ministry’s senior health adviser is telling his fellow doctors that helping their patients access the state assistance to which, as citizens, they are legally entitled, is the same as ‘‘putting them on’’ methamphet­amine, heroin or some other kind of ‘‘addictive debilitati­ng drug’’.

The Right’s decades-long rhetorical effort to associate being on a benefit with being hooked on drugs has thus been given the imprimatur of settled medical science. Henceforth, going to the Ministry of Social Developmen­t will be the equivalent of checking yourself into rehab.

Everything that happens to you there will be about getting you off your welfare addiction and back into the healthy lifestyle of paid employment. Of course, as medically verified drug addicts, the ‘‘welfare dependent’’ citizens themselves have no opinions worth considerin­g. Everybody knows that junkies lie, cheat, steal – even prostitute themselves – to feed their habit.

It is therefore vital that they not be mollycoddl­ed by their case workers at the ministry. What is required and what will, from now on, be meted out to these ‘‘addicts’’ is the ‘‘tough love’’ they so desperatel­y need – and which the failed policies of ‘‘welfare entitlemen­t’’ have for so long denied them. And, just in case there are people out there in the community who might object to this characteri­sation of New Zealand’s pioneering welfare state as nothing more than a government-sponsored tinnie house, the Ministry of Social Developmen­t has instituted a regime involving compulsory drug testing for ‘‘jobseekers’’; tough sanctions for those with outstandin­g arrest warrants; and mandatory attendance at classes devoted to imparting parenting skills.

Which is as clear a way of delivering the message that ‘‘these people are all drug-taking criminals who persistent­ly neglect and abuse their children’’ as the ministry’s bureaucrat­ic masters are willing to venture.

The National-led Government’s dramatic reform of New Zealand’s social welfare system marks an ominous turning-point in the country’s history. Never before has the state been willing to satisfy so completely the most punitive, the cruellest and nakedly sociopathi­c impulses of its wealthiest citizens.

The people behind these reforms know that there are simply not enough jobs to socially integrate the tens of thousands of ‘‘jobseekers’’ currently registered on the ministry’s books.

And yet they have no intention of following the example set by previous New Zealand government­s, in which the state itself provided the jobs so necessary to people’s health and wellbeing. What they propose to do, instead, is force as many jobseekers as possible off the ministry’s books. They will achieve this objective by turning the experience of being on the ministry’s books into a nightmare of bureaucrat­ic harassment and social stigmatisa­tion.

Before the rest of New Zealand could accept such callous brutalisat­ion, however, the National-led Government had first to transform welfare beneficiar­ies into useless and undeservin­g subhumans. Their poverty had to be presented as the consequenc­e of their own lack of applicatio­n and self-discipline.

They had to become idle ingrates: drug addicts and criminals, totally unworthy of decent people’s respect or compassion.

And now, because it is not made up of monsters, and for the sake of their hapless children, the Government is insisting that these creatures somehow be ‘‘persuaded’’ to turn their lives around. This time, however, the persuasion is not going to involve the use of carrots. This time the ministry is going to use the stick.

And, just as they were in Germany 75 years ago, the doctors are being asked to help.

We must hope that Kiwi physicians turn out to be less enthusiast­ic social engineers.

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