I don’t have kids and am not going to pretend that I can get my head around the hugely complex system of benefits and tax credits that lower income parents can access. So when Labour released its Families Package policy this week I was more interested in the other social security policy they announced, namely to give a cash payment to beneficiaries and pensioners at the start of each winter to help with power bills and firewood. The payment will be made automatically to beneficiaries and will be available to pensioners if they apply. More details of the policy are here, including that it ties in with Labour’s other wellbeing policies of healthy housing.
There’s a few things here that are notable. One is that Labour are saying it’s administratively more efficient, including financially, to pay universally to beneficiaries and pensioners than it is to start targeting. Inherent in this is that well off pensioners will be less likely to apply. This is smart. It keeps the system simple and cheap to run but also doesn’t automatically give the grant to those who need it less. This is a good sign for later policy that also seeks to simplify welfare.
It also means that all beneficiaries are valued. Most significant here is that Labour actually talked about beneficiaries as a class of people needing assistance. That’s huge. This isn’t hedging around NZ’s bene-bashing culture by talking about the deserving poor (eg children of beneficiaries). It’s saying all beneficiaries deserve this.
When Guyon Espiner trotted out the question about why beneficiaries weren’t being given a restricted-use card instead of cash, it was heartening to see this neoliberal framing (‘beneficiaries can’t be trusted’) contrasted with an actual left wing position that it’s ok and normal to trust beneficiaries. Little said it was an administrative efficiency issue but the subtext here is that Labour believe beneficiaries have the right to spend the money on what the beneficiaries deem is needed. This is also significant, because it shifts the culture from we have to control morally deficient beneficiaries to beneficiaries are people too.
I don’t know if it’s possible to explain to people who haven’t spent a chunk of time on a benefit how important the difference is between this and the Nationalified benefit system which would seek to tie such a payment into certain providers only irrespective of regional difference or individual circumstance (so no, you can’t buy your firewood from the dude down the road even if it’s drier or cheaper or better suited to the size of your fireplace). Bennett reform WINZ also requires levels of bureaucracy not just from WINZ but from the beneficiary who would be expected to prove how much power they needed and in some places would be told they don’t actually need what they do.
These controls are mind-numbing and soul-destroying for their immediate control over the physical lives of beneficiaries but also for the very strong message to beneficiaries that you don’t have the same rights as other people, that the government at some level owns you. Labour did something humane and sensible instead. If this is where they are heading in welfare, it will make a huge difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the country.
Obviously this is baby steps in terms of change. Yes, the much larger Families Package policy still segregates the non-working poor from the working poor (and parenting poor from childless poor), which is a long standing piece of institutional bigotry and unfairness, but Working For Families is a policy the left will need to push on once we have a strong Labour/Green government.
I’m hoping we are seeing the start of that change. This shift from Labour has been a long time coming. In a Q and A post at The Standard in 2014, when asked about his intentions for Labour policy around beneficiaries specifically, Little made a strong statement against bene-bashing, including this,
I care about every member of my community, whether they’re in work or not. And a government must be there for every person in its jurisdiction, whether they’re in work or not.
Given the winter power payment policy is one of the only direct affirmations of beneficiaries’ right to exist in a country that routinely practices prejudice against them as a class, I am saying thank-you Labour, and yes, do this more. This is values-based politics, it matches what Andrew Little said when he first became leader, and we need to hold him to that.
These are the building blocks of a compassionate society, not just policy around payments but actions that will change the culture. I want us to tell Labour not just what they are getting wrong, but what they are getting right and then demand more of that from them.
I also think that we don’t know yet what a Labour/Green government will be like, because we haven’t really done it like this before. But if you want to see how we could seriously change social welfare for the better, and why changing the government to the most progressive one we can get is absolutely critical, check out the Green Party Income Support policy.