Hard News by Russell Brown


Just marketing to the base

As David Farrar noted with an air of relief on The Panel yesterday, National's new social welfare policy is not simply an endorsement of the existing Labour policy. Indeed, I suspect that is the whole point: because it is difficult to justify the policy on grounds of its compelling benefit to the nation.

These policies meet a moral belief more than they meet a demonstrated need. Radio New Zealand didn't have to look far yesterday for approving vox-pops from National Party members. And in a sense, they're right: in general, if people can find sustainable work, they are better in that

But these people probably believe that recipients of the unemployment and domestic purposes benefits are left to their own devices. Hardly. Labour has developed the fine art of beneficiary nagging quite well over the past nine years. If you're on the DPB long-term with school-age children, you will have been "helped" towards working or training more than once.

And, in general, the helping approach has worked very well. The number of people relying on benefits and the cost of those benefits to the state has plummeted since 2000. Yes, as Judith Collins pointed out, the number on the sickness benefit is the highest it's every been, but so is the population -- and that population is, demographically, only going to become more infirm over the next few years.

National proposes a new element of compulsion, backed up with a wider and more varied set of sanctions. It also sets a 15-hour work or training benchmark for DPB recipients -- unless there really isn’t any work or training to be had.

There is one very good thing in National's policy: for the first time in 12 years, the threshold before additional income begins to abate benefit levels would be raised from $80 per week to $100. I think this was necessary to avoid the rest of the policy looking unduly punitive. Otherwise more than half of the $180 per week a solo mum might earn from 15 hours at the minimum wage would be subject to abatement. I'm not sure what the abatement rates presently are (feel free to enlighten me), but it's a solid bet that, as ever, the highest marginal tax rates in the land will be faced by those trying to get off the bottom rung.

Like the now-abandoned work-for-the-dole, the policy doesn't come cheap or free. The state may be obliged to devote additional resources to ginning up both work and training, and it would be committed to providing new resources for the budgeting advice to be compelled upon people who repeatedly apply for emergency payments. The sharply increased monitoring of sickness benefit eligibility will mean more paper-shufflers, and the whole package will need to be guided by -- horrors! -- some decent policy analysis. The real-world absence of tidy little 15-hour jobs would see the pressure come on the government to provide more childcare. A shocking newspaper story would eventually attribute a tragedy to a mother leaving a child un-minded at the compulsion of the state.

The fundamental tension between wishing the state to wade in and start running other people's lives and demanding it stay out of yours often goes blithely unacknowledged. By the time I switched off The Panel yesterday, Bob Harvey was on the phone proposing a far lower threshold for the taking of children into state care (a defensible policy in itself, but precisely what, as practised by the Swedes, became an emblem of nanny-state wickedness during the poo-flinging over the child discipline bill). Julia Hartley Moore was proposing forcible sterilisation and Jim Mora was wittering on about compulsory parenting licences. You can see why I was obliged to stop listening.

As John Armstrong notes, there are elements in National's policy that Labour would cheerfully have (notably, the formal commitment to indexing benefits). Some of the other parts will entail new resources, and new risks, in pursuit of a problem that, as even the Herald's editorial says, does not compellingly present itself:

Single mothers with good earning capacity are normally anxious to return to paid work as soon as child care allows. National's efforts will be felt mainly by those with few skills and poor earning capacity and, frankly, Mr Key ought to have more important things to do. This policy does more to stroke the shibboleths of party supporters than meet any pressing social need. He should return to topics that count.

The editorial is headed 'Inflicting pain for little gain'. Donna Wynd of the Child Poverty Action Group was on the radio this morning openly musing about what secret agenda might lie behind an initiative that implied a hell of a lot of policy work for quite little bang. I don't actually think there is a secret agenda here. It's just marketing to the base, is all.

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