It’s very easy in our individualist, consumerist, capitalist society to say ‘if you’re poor, it’s your fault, don’t come looking to the rest of us for help’ – ‘it’s your fault for marrying an alcoholic, don’t expect us to pay to house your family’, ‘it’s your fault you got pregnant when you couldn’t afford to support the kid’. It’s a sentiment that we hear expressed all too often by the Right, who seem to think that if you’re in a tough situation that’s your problem and that anyone claiming a benefit is just a bludger. Hopefully, we will see a sea-change in that attitude over the coming years.
We now have two National ministers, one of them prime minister, who make a big deal over the fact they relied on the State to house and support them for significant periods of their lives*. Most of the rest have also benefited from the welfare state, if not from housing and benefits then from free education and health-care for themselves and their families. It would be hypocritical and callous in the extreme for these people who did so well thanks to our social safety-net to now start taking that net apart.
Is the welfare state perfect? No, of course there are always examples of abuse and things that could be improved. But that’s not an argument for throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Because some beneficiaries go on to great things, is that grounds to punish those who don’t with work-for-the-dole type policies? No, the welfare state is about ensuring that what our society believes is a minimum acceptable standard of living is available to all. If it can be a springboard for some to go on to great things, fantastic, but we can’t expect all beneficiaries to become ministers or even get into work. It is sufficient that most people are on benefits for short periods and very few try to abuse the system (as if living on $200 a week with nothing to do is a great life).
The experience of nine years under Labour has been that people are keen to get off benefits, if there are jobs to be had and support to get them into work. That’s why we’ve seen benefit numbers reduce 30% (100,000) in nine years.
We can but hope that the new Government will think twice before attacking benefits. Not just so future John Keys and Paula Bennetts get the opportunities they had but so every Kiwi who falls on hard times knows that the rest of us will be there, collectively, to break their fall.
*(in fact, there were former beneficiaries in the previous govt, they just didn’t make big deal out of it)