If the political world can be split into Left and Right, is there any issue which is better at dividing us than welfare?
Here’s a triplet of facts. 1) Every “developed” country needs a welfare system to take care of those who are, for whatever reason unable to support themselves. 2) The majority of welfare recipients are exactly the cases of genuine need that welfare systems are designed for. 3) A minority of welfare recipients are lazy bludgers who game the system to try and extract benefits when they could support themselves.
I don’t think anyone seriously questions point 1 anymore. The Left won that argument. What still separates us clearly into Left and Right today, it seems to me, is how we respond to 2 and 3. A Lefty will generously support a comprehensive welfare system to provide a decent quality of life for those in need (they accept the minority of bludgers as a cost of doing business). But nothing shrivels a Tory heart like the idea of sharing their wealth. While unable to deny the need, they become so obsessed with the small minority of bludgers that they can’t help but attack the system, and in doing so they attack the support for the overwhelming majority of perfectly genuine welfare recipients.
And so it begins (again) in New Zealand. I was going to write on the Rebstock report, but others have already done it far better than I could. Gordon Campbell:
The government’s welfare working group has dutifully delivered the findings the government wants to hear. To Paula Rebstock and her colleagues, being on welfare is primarily a failure of attitude by beneficiaries and has little or nothing to do with failures by government or business to create jobs, or with cutbacks to Social Welfare staff, or with any other structural factor beyond the education system which gets a few lumps for not providing business with the kind of drones it needs to fit into the job slots available, assuming such slots existed, which they currently don’t.
There is a peculiarly airless quality to the working paper, driven as it is by ideology and not by any discernible engagement with New Zealand, 2010. Because the panel pays so little attention to events in the real world newsflash : the job market has not yet recovered from the worst economic recession since WW11, and that global recession seems about to recur it could have been written at any time over the last four decades.
The scare scenario that it offers to justify change in welfare policy is bogus: if nothing is done, the working paper says, the welfare system that currently costs $6.5 billion could end up costing $50 billion which would be unsustainable. Duh. But that would only happen, it also concedes, if everyone currently on a benefit stayed on it for life. Yet that doesn’t happen. The vast majority of those on the DPB use it entirely as intended as a temporary shelter until they find work. The $50 billion scare number is a dishonest attempt to get headlines by libeling people on the DPB, and on other benefits.
The reality is far less dramatic. Elsewhere within the working paper, the level of those reliant on welfare is predicted to rise from 13% now to 16% in 2050. That’s only a three per cent rise spread over 40 years, in the context of an ageing population that will inevitably generate more people on sickness and invalids benefits. So, where’s the crisis? In that sense, there isn’t one. â€˜Crisis’ is a word that I would reserve for the health system, under Tony Ryall. A ruckus over welfare is merely a political diversion from the debacle unfolding in health.
The driver here is ideology, not reality. The Key government seems to believe that being on welfare is caused by a failing in the person concerned, and by their enablers in the medical and education system. This is a ideologically blinkered approach that sees society as essentially individualistic one looks in vain in the working paper for any recognition that getting people back into work involves a triangular partnership between the individual, government and the private sector. … this working group is not engaged in a genuine consultation. It is on a journey towards pre-determined solutions.
And at No Right Turn:
If public service cuts, mass-unemployment, and health cuts weren’t enough to convince you National was taking us back to the 90’s, they’ve moved on to the next component in their recipe: beneficiary-bashing. Their right-wing “Welfare Working Group” has dutifully reported back that the welfare system is “unsustainable”, complete with a scare figure of $50 billion to manufacture a sense of crisis to drive “reform”. But delving into their extremely shallow working papers, their big findings seem to be:
- the welfare system has become more generous since the 1960’s, when we dumped sick people on their relatives and left solo parents destitute;
- people are likely to stay on the unemployment benefit for longer at the moment due to the lack of jobs;
- people with longer-term problems (such as solo parents, those with long-term illnesses, and those with permanent disabilities) tend to stay on benefits for longer;
- people who are unable to work don’t get pushed into it by WINZ;
- people who spend long periods of time on benefits are poorer (but because benefit adequacy was excluded from their terms of reference, they can’t talk about why that might be).
For most of us, these “discoveries” are so obvious and banal as to cause us to question how much these “experts” were paid (or indeed, why they were paid at all). For the Welfare Working Group, however, it is apparently a reason to dismantle the entire welfare system and replace it with an insurance-based model which will deliver less, and leave more people in poverty.
I guess the government got what it paid for then. But the rest of us should demand a better justification for such radical changes affecting so many people than the usual right-wing kneejerk of “benefit bad! Poor lazy!”
Meanwhile, if the government is serious about reducing the welfare bill, here’s a few suggestions:
- If the government is concerned about too many people on the unemployment benefit, it could do something to create jobs, rather than simply expecting them to magically appear if it makes people desperate enough;
- If the government is concerned about too many people on the sickness benefit, it could ensure they get treated for their conditions, rather than left to rot. Sickness benefit numbers represent a failure of our public health system, not of the sick;
- If the government is concerned specifically about the number of people receiving the sickness benefit due to mental health or addiction issues, it could reduce inequality. These problems are strongly correlated with inequality (and for good reason), and more equal societies have less of them.
- If the government is concerned about solo parents not working, it could provide better access to childcare and further education, rather than cutting both.
But somehow, I suspect the government will do none of these things. They would rather demonise the poor and grind their faces further into the mud than actually do anything to help. …
These are the real issues that distinguish governments of the Left and Right. As times continue hard, and could well get harder yet, the country may just wake up and remember these facts by the time 2011 rolls around.