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Pulling the ladder up behind him

Written By: - Date published: 2:18 pm, August 13th, 2008 - 16 comments
Categories: john key, welfare - Tags:

A lot of you won’t remember it but there was a time in this country when being on a benefit wasn’t seen as the fault of the person receiving it and the idea of a social welfare system was about just that: the welfare of our society. It took a campaign of right-wing scaremongering through the late eighties and nineties to change that and, in my opinion, we are a much meaner and poorer people for allowing this vile mentality to be planted in our national psyche.

There’s a must read piece up on scoop at the moment by Anne Else that reminds us of how we treated sole parents before we lost our compassion and that points out how John Key was himself a beneficiary of that treatment.

Back in 1969, when Key’s mother and her three children went onto the widow’s benefit, they would have received about 65 percent of the average wage, plus the family benefit of $3 a week for each child. Housing costs were much lower than they are now, especially if, like them, you lived in a state house. Basic foods were subsidised. Electricity costs were among the cheapest in the world.

So John Key’s family was poor, but not desperately so. Sole parent benefits stayed at 65 percent or more of the average wage until National slashed them in the early 1990s. They’ve never got anywhere near that level since.

If Mrs Key had been able to do some paid work as well, she would have been allowed to keep her earnings. By earning the maximum allowed, a widow or deserted sole mother with one child could receive more income than a general labourer. The standard exemption for other income was then worth around 60% of the one-child benefit rate. But by 1985 it had sunk to 15%, and has barely recovered since.

I doubt Key would be in the position he is now without state housing, his mother’s widows benefit, free health and education and all the other good things that helped create the best educated and most prosperous generation this country has ever seen.

It’s just a shame his policies are designed to deny others the same chances he had.

16 comments on “Pulling the ladder up behind him ”

  1. Greg 1

    Thats simply a ridiculous notion. You cannot critisise Key for the actions of the government when he was growing up. Its dumb to consider the policies of the past as a benchmark for the future, they come from a different time, in a different era. There used to be free tertiary education for all, but even most Labour supporters would see this as a bad idea now

  2. Pardon me IB, but wasn’t there a LABOUR government in the late 1980’s – and weren’t Helen Clark, Michael Cullen, Phil Goff, Annette King and Trevor Mallard a part of it?

  3. Crank 3

    This question is genuine and in no way meant to be racist.

    I wonder how much New Zealanders attitude to beneficiaries and the change in remuneration levels was caused by the swelling of the beneficiary ranks through immigration from the Islands?

  4. IrishBill 4

    Greg, these were policies that created a broad middle class in New Zealand. Similar policies are still in place in many (mostly European and Scandinavian countries) and funnily enough these are also countries with high median wealth, literacy and health and with low crime.

    One of the biggest scams pulled on New Zealanders was the move to an aspirational free-market model that quickly descended into the vicious individualism that has cause great harm to our society.

    I feel comfortable criticising John Key for having had the advantages of a decent social security system and then pushing to further erode that system for others.

  5. IB is making the point that the welfare system that gave Key a chance in life has been degraded by politicans like him since then and his policies will only make the situation worse.

    Crank. I don’t know about back then, but now beneficiary numbers are falling, not swelling, and Pacific Islanders make up 7.6% of beneficiaries, compared to 7.3% of the population… of course there are proportionally fewer Pacific Islanders above retirement age but more below working age… so no significant overrepresentation at any rate.

  6. IrishBill 6

    IV2, So what if they were Labour? Am I supposed to be all worried about criticising them because their right-wing lunacy had a red rossette attached to it? Get a life.

    The current government has gone a small way to addressing the damage done in the 80’s/90’s but not enough. I certainly don’t think the answer is to vote in a party that has an agenda to resume where they left off in ’99. Do you?

  7. Pascal's bookie 7

    Great post Irish

    Crank, interesting question.

    the following quote is from Lee Atwater, a Republican party strategist:

    You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

    What Lee is saying here, is that in the States back in the 50’s it was easy to get the large racist southern vote and you could do it quite blatantly. This was the era when the south was solidly Democratic Party.

    With the Civil rights era in the 60’s, things began to change. Overt racism became a vote losing proposition, so the language was about state rights and so on. This leads into the Nixon’s ‘Southern Stratergy’ when the South went to the GOP based on these issues.

    When you get to Reagan and Bush1 the language has to be even more coded. So you get ‘Welfare queens’ and ‘Tax cuts’. Doesn’t sound racist at all, but the racists know what you are talking about, Blacks get more welfare, so cutting taxes and slashing welfare hurts blacks. Sounds all crazy conspiricy talk but that Atwater quote is legit, those are the tactics he used to help get Reagan elected.

    Whether that applies in NZ I don’t know. But dawn raids are a part of our history, and some of Michale Basset’s writings on welfare are seriously dodgy in this regard. IMV

  8. monkey-boy 8

    “It’s just a shame his policies are designed to deny others the same chances he had.”
    Can you outline for me which policies you refer to when you say this?

  9. IrishBill 9


    Taking the rights from workers in the first 90 days of a new job

    Forcing sole parents to work regardless of their personal situations

    Pressuring sickness and invalid beneficiaries into work

    Taking the cap of GP’s fees

    Rewarding those rich enough to pay back student loans in lump sums

    Privatising ACC

    Putting youth criminals into “bootcamps”

    Refusing to commit to increasing the minimum wage

    Putting vulnerable workers at risk of losing their 4th week’s leave

    Tax cuts for the rich

    Softening the ground for asset sales

    Each of these policies represents a “small target” move – none of them are the end of the world by themselves but each one is an incremental step backwards and that means three years of things getting gradually worse rather than steadily better. Why would anyone vote for that?

    There are a lot of things that need to be done that will take a centre-left government to do them (note: I don’t believe we currently have a centre-left government). National is not the answer.

    Now could you outline why you (presumably) think they are?

  10. r0b 10

    There used to be free tertiary education for all, but even most Labour supporters would see this as a bad idea now

    Not this one. Free Education Now!

  11. Rex Widerstrom 11

    I couldn’t agree more with the post, Irish. There’s some excuse for people who’ve never lived on welfare to not realise how fair it used to be or, if more recently, how unfair it’s become. But to have been raised in a State house by a beneficiary and to not then accept that others in a similar position deserve at least a similar chance suggests someone who, for all the spin to the contrary, has forgotten his roots.

    Sadly Labour have done nothing to rebalance the benefit system after Shipley and Co got done gutting it (the abatement regime would have been a good place to start) and National know there’s easy votes in beneficiary-bashing so they’re certainly not going to act.

    This is an area where the Greens have some good policy. It’s just a pity they chose other issues on which to flex their muscles.

  12. Anita 12

    Have you noticed that women on the widow’s benefit won’t be forced to work? So if your husband dies leaving you raising your children alone (e.g. Key’s Mum) there’s no enforced work/study, but if your husband beat you and the kids so you left him you will be forced to work or study.

    Equality in action eh!

  13. IrishBill 13

    Thanks Rex, as you know I am a firm supporter of the greens for just such reasons. I think, in terms of implementing a lot of centre-left policy there is a lot of fear in Labour about challenging the perceptions around the welfare state that were created with taxpayer’s money (such as the massive misinformation campaign encouraging people to dob beneficiaries in).

    In many ways the current government has underestimated the public’s willingness to accept pragmatic and fair left ideas and have thus missed a lot of opportunities to make this country a lot better. If they are voted out this year they may well go down in history as the government that were too timid to really make the change they should have (and that a lot of their supporters wanted them to).

  14. GMan 14

    I watched the speech where John Key introduced their welfare policy. One of the features of the policy as you well know, is a one year time limit. He also seemed to be saying that because his mother was on a widow’s benefit that he knew what it was like to be poor. He went on to say that his mother EVENTUALLY went on to find work. I just wondered how long she took to finally get work. I mean if he is going to use being in a welfare family as some kind of moral justification for putting restrictions and sanctions on social welfare, he should have a think about how his mother and family would have been affected by such rules.

  15. My wife got her law degree in the days when tuition at Vic Uni was $129 / year. Had the present regime been in place, she would likely not have been able to do it. She ended up 2nd-equal in her graduating year.

    The brain drain isn’t just people leaving new Zealand. It’s also the unrealised potential because people are put off higher study by the huge debts they must incur today unless they have well-off parents who also want to help.

  16. Kevyn 16

    IrishBill, I appreciate the thrust of your argument but things weren’t quite as rosey as you potray them.

    Speaking from personal experience the widow’s benefit was means tested in the 1970s. Those who had gone without in order to pay for life insurance or into a superannuation fund found their dependents gained little from that sacrifice.

    I remember the bottle drives and galas to pay for arts and crafts and music and sports equipment. When I was in the standards my parents were on the PTA so I heard a fair bit about the limits to how much of our education was “free”.

    I can’t comment on healthcare being free but living in a suburb with no car and six kids meant it wasn’t accessable health care.
    No amount of funding can make up for such basic failings and not being able to get to a doctor. Either my mum was too proud to have a district nurse visiting or some fool had decided that concept wasn’t needed in cities.

    Milk and bread were subsidised, I remember that quite clearly.

    Cheap housing and cheap electricity gets my gander up. Omitting insulation to keep the purchase price down and get more poeple to buy their own homes is something we expect from spec builders. Governments are supposed to provide gevernance. You don’t have to be an accounant to work out that insulation pays for itself several times over during the average lifetime of a house. For governments to encourage uninsulated houses, and even build their own, and then resort to subsidising the excessive amounts of energy needed to heat them was madness. Especially as wise governance should have had regard to the wider impact on health spending and the balance of payments. Turbines have to be imported but insulation was literally growing on the sheep’s back.

    There may have been a time in this country when being on a benefit wasn’t seen as the fault of the person receiving it. But the fact that the number of people on the unemployment benefit in the 1950s was one-tenth of the number who classified themselves as out of work in the census suggests that potential beneficiaries did see it as their fault or, simply that access to the UB was more difficult than today because there was a pretty strict definition of “no jobs available”. I’m inclined to think that the former explanation was the more common one, but only judging from the writings of Barry Crump and comments from my many uncles and aunts of that generation (children of the depression).

    IMHO there is strong evidence that the prosperity and social security of that era have the opposite cause and effect from the one you claim, or rather that the flow from social security to prosperity is a feedback rather than an initiator.

    Despite everything I have said I still have to agree 100% that specifically for John Key it is a shame his policies are designed to deny others the same chances he had. That’s because he makes no attempt to support those policies with robust research, in fact how many social studies teachers would accept the Nats policy releases as home work from their students. Reminds me of “Where’s the beef?”. Mind you, Jenny Shipley tried that “rational decision making” approach and was condemned for not being “compassionate”.

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