During the election campaign in 2017 it became a concern that despite Labour’s stated intention that all New Zealanders deserved to live with dignity and be free from poverty, their approach to welfare was that there would be certain New Zealanders who would be sacrificed because we can’t save everyone. The question then arose: which of us would it be?
In 2018, five months into the new government, I wrote in a post,
It’s possible that Labour will take a pragmatic approach of keeping the underclass in a holding pattern while trying to prevent those above falling down the hole. Sepuloni,
“It’s about proportionate universalism. There are people with high and complex needs and yes they need additional support … but the group of people that I’d be concerned about is that tier of New Zealanders who don’t have high and complex needs, but are really on the brink,” she said.
“It wouldn’t take much for them to fall into that at risk category. Someone loses their job, someone becomes really unwell really quickly and unexpectedly and all of a sudden we’re in the difficult predicament.”
Without a values-based commitment to helping everyone, it’s hard not to start looking at who Labour will sacrifice this time.
Who is being sacrificed is clear now, I just didn’t think that it would be Labour actively pushing people into the hole by removing their income for 3 months.
Even allowing for TVNZ’s obvious hack and paste for maximum manipulation in this video, it’s still shocking to see Labour being in such complete alignment with Paula Bennett’s punitive welfare policy on drug testing beneficiaries.
1 NEWS revealed this week that of the nearly 40,000 beneficiaries referred for jobs that required a drug test this year, there were only 114 failed tests and on 72 occasions beneficiaries were punished with sanctions.
Under the sanctions, regime job seekers’ can have their benefit cut by 50 per cent for four weeks, then stopped altogether if there are further infringements.
That’s beneficiaries with children. Those without children can lose their whole benefit for 13 weeks. Sanctions kick in after a process of failing three tests (which the beneficiary has to pay for), so there will be the argument that it’s only fair, beneficiaries had a choice. But one subtext here is an old and tired one, that beneficiaries are to be denied the simple pleasures in life. Jacinda Ardern herself criticised the policy in 2013 for its inability to differentiate between drug abuse and recreational use. And those that are addicted need support not penalties.
Living on a 50 – 100% reduction of a low income for one to three months is something that some people will struggle to ever recover from. Many beneficiaries have no savings and have no cash whatsoever by the end of each week.
In that situation how do you pay rent for 4 weeks with no income, let alone 3 months? Or buy food? Afford bus fare to get to job interviews? If you get a big unexpected cost in that time eg car repair, or your freezer breaks down, or a series of children’s medical bills, you go further into debt and at some point it becomes impossible to get out of that.
When Labour were in opposition, Ardern as Spokesperson on Social Development, and Phil Twyford, both heavily criticised National’s new drug testing policy because of the problems that the associated sanctions would cause. Now both Ardern and Minister for Social development, Carmel Sepuloni, are saying the testing and sanctions will remain, and are needed to ‘encourage’ beneficiaries to get a job.
Jacinda Arden, Minister for Child Poverty Reduction,
Ms Ardern told TVNZ1’s Breakfast, “when there are children involved there is a different approach”.
“You can’t and you shouldn’t lose your full benefit – the sanction is limited, there is a sanction but it’s not in full because you have children in your care and we have to think about kids in those situations.”
But in 2013, when National introduced new benefit sanctions, Labour MP Phil Twyford said cutting people’s benefits by 50 percent when they have children will “ultimately do severe damage to the child”.
So which is it Jacinda? Only cutting by 50% is about doing right by children, or cutting by 50% will severely damage them. How is this helping people on the brink? How is this not pushing people down into the hole of serious poverty?
Is the ‘encouragement’ value really worth the risk of destroying the lives of 72 people, and any children and partners they have? Or are they just the collateral damage in the service of jobs at all costs even though there aren’t enough to go around?
Even if one accepts the position that we should save those we can and sacrifice others to do so, who actually believes that severely punishing 72 people who fail to get a drug testable job will change anything meaningful? If they’re addicted to drugs, how will this help? If they’re using recreational drugs, how is forcing them into a job they wouldn’t normally apply for, and that will be at risk from that use, going to be a good thing?
For those that remain unconvinced that the sanction policy is bad policy, consider that the Welfare Expert Advisory Group recommended drug-testing sanctions be removed. MSD’s evidence brief to WEAG showed that drug-testing was unreliable and not fit for purpose, and that sanctions had been shown overseas to lead to things like food insecurity and hospital admissions for children.
So what is going on? At this point I don’t even care if this is partly New Zealand First’s influence, NZF don’t control what Labour say to the public. Labour have a chance here. They come out and reframe the discussion so that they don’t look like converts to the Paula Bennett School of Beneficiary Bashing and Humiliation, or they lose whatever respect that might be left on welfare issues.
At the moment it looks like a facade just fell off and we are seeing Labour’s ideological commitment to punitive welfare and class divisions based on who are the deserving poor. I don’t expect there to be much media coverage of this, but it is a milestone in Labour losing the moral authority to lead on wellbeing in New Zealand.
This policy isn’t a progressive position and it dovetails with most of what Labour are doing on welfare. They tinker around the edges, but remain unmoved on any real improvement for beneficaries.
It seems unlikely this will change any time soon and we should remember this come the next election. Labour can still get to lead the government, but that government will be greatly improved by a stronger Green coalition partner with an actual progressive welfare policy that includes removal of punitive sanctions.