The best form of welfare is a decent job. The Left has always said that and the record of Labour-led governments has confirmed it. During it’s nine years in power, the fifth Labour government saw the number of people on the unemployment benefit fall from 158,000 in December 1999 to 17,000 in June 2008. Total beneficiary numbers were down from 402,000 to 252,000. A stunning success built around the belief that it doesn’t make sense to punish people for not working when there are no jobs – the solution to the dole queue is a full employment policy.
The most effective welfare policy (and the most effective crime policy) is an effective jobs policy.
So, I’m not automatically against the idea that the government’s welfare working group is looking into that more should be done to help sickness and invalid’s beneficiaries into work. Having something constructive to do is good for people. Already the average term on the sickness benefit is less than a year and many go back into work. Adopting a rehabilitative approach to sickness and invalids benefits like ACC does for its claimants should lead to better outcomes for more people and save money on benefit payments that can be used to improve public services.
But all the assistance in the world won’t make a blind bit of difference while the unemployment rate is so high. You can’t help people into jobs that don’t exist. The danger is that the government will simply make it harder for people to get on and stay on the sickness and invalids’ benefits, and people in need will end up without a job or a benefit. We mustn’t have another round of punitive attacks on people in need.
I think we also need to be careful before claiming that sickness and invalid numbers are out of control. They increased by 70% and 82% respectively under National in the 1990s, 41% and 66% under Labour, and 22% and 1.7% in a year and a half under Paula Bennett. These are large percentage increases, well ahead of population growth, but they are easing off (excepting the increase in sickness that seems to to associated with the recession). And the root of most of the increase is surely demographic.
If you look at the percentage of the population on a sickness or invalid benefit by age group, it’s mostly older people on the verge of retirement whose bodies have just broken down earlier than most. An aging population inevitably means a higher percentage of people in those age groups, meaning more needing the benefits.
So, it should not be assumed that increases means abuse of the system. Rising numbers on the sickness and invalids benefits are part and parcel of an aging population. There may be some capacity for helping more people back into work and that’s a good thing. But not if it’s just a fig leaf to disguise an attack on people in genuine need who can’t get any other income.
As for the other idea the welfare working group is looking at is an insurance, rather than benefit, model for delivering welfare. More on that later but we already know what a failure it is, just look at the terrible poverty it allows in the US.