Welfare report aftermath – we won't be fooled again

Response to last week's Welfare Working Group report shows that not so many of us are fooled by shonky stats and a new generation of beneficiary bashing rhetoric

A week ago today, Welfare Working Group Chair Paula Rebstock launched their first official report ‘Long term benefit dependency – the issues.'

What's impressed me most in the days since then has been the breadth of commentary panning the report and its underpinnings.

From Gordon Campbell's brilliant revelation about the spurious statistics on which the supposed blowout in benefit costs is based, through to a series of Herald reflections – Brian Rudman on Wednesday, John Armstrong on Saturday, and Tapu Misa today – these journalists have exposed, in different ways, the shonky nature of the WWG and its brief.

The Dominion Post classically let the side down with its editorial last Tuesday ‘A safety net, not a recliner', in which the writer simply displays a lazy adherence to that old urge to blame beneficiaries for the situation they're in, rather than recognising, for example, that we are some 255,000 jobs short at the moment.

Perhaps the Dominion Post simply hadn't got as far as reading past headlines like ‘Report shows welfare bill could skyrocket' which came out on the first day, before it became clear (via Gordon Campbell) that the $50 billion a year on which the Welfare Working Group is basing its recommendations hinges on the premise that all people on all benefits stay on them for life, a ridiculous notion.

And in fact, one has only to take a glance at  an October 2009 Treasury report ‘Challenges and choices: New Zealand's long-term fiscal statement' to see that this far from radical Government department expects benefit spending to decline substantially as a share of GDP in the years leading up to 2050.

This report demonstrates that it is costs in national superannuation, health and debt servicing that will rise sharply in the next four decades, not welfare.

And going beyond the playing with statistics, I haven't seen any great enthusiasm from politicians, lobbyists or the public for the Welfare Working Group's ideas for change.

This is not surprising when their key push is to:

  • Manufacture an artificial crisis in benefit costs to justify moving to an ACC or social insurance model of delivering welfare, in which employers and workers would share the costs with the state.
  • Find ways in which to force as many DPB, sickness and invalids' beneficiaries into full or part-time work as possible, and failing that to push as many of them as they can into a benefit category that pays less than they receive at present.

All of this of course neglects the fact that we have high and rising unemployment at present; that it is actually really hard for people with long-term illness, injury or disability to get work, even in the best of economic circumstances; and that forcing sole parents out to work at any cost can have deeply detrimental consequences for both parent and children.

I also don't know to what extent Paula Rebstock, Paula Bennett and John Key have talked to their friends in the business community about the notion of making employers pay upfront for a big hunk of welfare costs.

And I am wondering if we are seeing a welcome and fundamental shift in attitudes towards beneficiaries in 2010 compared to the blatant scaremongering and scapegoating of times gone by.

After all, many of us have now spent some time in our lives on a benefit ourselves, whether as a sole parent, unemployed, or on a sickness or invalid's benefit.

And if it wasn't us personally on a benefit, it may well have been our mum or dad, our brother or sister, or our friends or other relations.

I hope these personal experiences of the welfare safety net will help us defend it, as we face the biggest threat to social security as we know it since the system was first shaped by a Labour Government coming out of the 1930s Depression.

I am not exaggerating about the threat. If we were to move to an insurance based system, the consequences will be that many of those now eligible for support won't be, and that people who are in precarious low-waged work will receive little support when they need it.

I am the first to say that our welfare system is in urgent need of reform. But this reform needs to start with a genuine public debate which goes a lot further than the solutions the Welfare Working Group is engendering as a result of the brief handed down by Paula Bennett.

And it's a debate which needs to look at the causes of unemployment and poverty, and seriously addressing those causes, rather than once again racing to solutions that fit a beneficiary-bashing political agenda.