It's punitive welfare that's pointless, not protest

Protest outside Nats' summer party a necessary act of defiance in face of welfare and housing reforms 

On Sunday afternoon I spent three hours on the picket line outside National’s ‘Summer Party’ at the Royal Akarana Yacht Club.

About fifty of us from Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP) were taking the opportunity to let John Key and friends know what we think of their policies on welfare, unemployment and housing.

We copped the usual abuse at the time -- ‘why don’t you get a job?’ -- and the usual abuse afterwards -- ‘you’re just rent-a-crowd protesting without a point’ … and the rest.

I’d like to assure anyone interested that no-one in our group takes protest lightly. It is an act of defiance in the face of a government which seems to lack a shred of empathy for adults in poverty and which thinks that punitive beneficiary bashing is the only way to deal with those dependent on the state for survival. (If you’re working age, that is – if you’re a superannuitant, this does not apply).

While National has won yet another election and has naturally assumed its mandate to carry on with its welfare and housing reforms, we don’t accept that this means we should just shut up and stay silent until the next round in the electoral cycle.  

AAAP runs a beneficiary advocacy service, helping people who have problems dealing with Work & Income.

On a daily basis we work with people who are denied their entitlements, have their benefits cut off without good reason, are unable to access housing even when in desperate need, and are suffering all manner of demeaning treatment at the hands of the department.

Paula Bennett’s welfare reforms of the previous six years are really coming home to roost.

In August 2014 we ran a beneficiary ‘impact’ at the Mangere Work & Income office.

For three days around 50 of us worked as volunteer advocates helping over 500 people access what they should have been getting from the department in the first place. 

Hundreds more people were turned away in scenes that overwhelmed and depressed us in the extreme. Despite Work & Income putting on up to 30 extra staff and with all our volunteers going flat out, there was no way we could help everyone who turned up.

We are still dealing with the aftermath now – and this is just one out of dozens of Work & Income offices in the Auckland region.

National’s welfare reforms are geared, as Paula Rebstock’s Welfare Working Group recommended way back in 2011, to getting 100,000 people out of the working age benefit system by 2021.

What this means in practice is that sole parents of babies and young children, and the sick, injured and disabled are harassed into seeking paid work, while as of December 2014 there were officially 256,800 jobless people in New Zealand.                

Surely a sane society would put the focus on helping the unemployed into work and education rather than work-testing those who are already finding day to day survival a struggle.

It’s a kind of cruel madness to place paid work at any price as the primary purpose of welfare.

Labour started this drive in the 2000s when it amended the purpose of the Social Security Act to place paid work at its heart, and then instituted the Working for Families 'In Work' payment which deliberately discriminates against the children of beneficiaries. National has built its welfare reforms on the back of Labour’s changes.

In the end, ‘work first’ is simply a crude tool used to punish beneficiaries while creating an ever larger pool of people competing for low wage, part time and casual work  at the insecure low end segment of the labour market.

Unpaid work in the home and in the community doesn’t count.

If the government had a shred of common sense they’d be finding ways of harnessing peoples’ energy instead of punishing them.

Last week, our group hosted a meeting with British professor Guy Standing, co-founder of the international Basic Income Earth Network. He talked about his vision for a UBI, a universal basic income grounded in ‘rights not charity’, enabling all people to pursue a fulfilling life both inside and outside the paid workforce.

There are more opportunities to hear Guy speak while he is still in New Zealand, and I strongly recommend you get along if you have an interest. Guy Standing is speaking:

Wellington: 5.00pm Thursday 19 February at St Johns Church Hall, cnr Willis & Dixon Sts – hosted by the Fabian Society.

Auckland: 11.00am Friday 27 February at Te Iringa Room (WG308), Sir Paul Reeves Building, AUT City campus.

His book A precariat charter: From denizens to citizens is a great read as well, an inspiration for those of us who are looking for new ways forward in the world of welfare and work, taking into account 21st century realities.

At the opening of Parliament earlier this month John Key said he had a simple message about his government’s priority “Carry on making the country wealthier.”

That might be well and good for those who already have more than enough, and for those who believe making life harder and harder for those at the bottom is somehow going to make them better off personally.

However, those of us standing and speaking and sometimes raging outside the Nats’ little party on Sunday are calling out for a different kind of future, one in which all adults and children in this country get a decent chance at even a modicum of dignified survival.