Hard News by Russell Brown

203

Welfare: Back to the Future?

The Welfare Working Group's report is due out today finally out and it takes no great feat of prediction to say that it will be controversial. What its contents won't be is particularly new. All indications are that it will focus on the same philosophies that were urged on the government in the 1990s.

At that time, the touchstone for "welfare reform" was Wisconsin Works, or W2, the US state scheme that held that "only work should pay" and directed mothers with young children into work on pain of financial sanction, subsidising childcare where necessary.

W2 is often reckoned to be the most studied welfare programme in US history, but it's surprisingly difficult to find clear research findings on its effects. The Wisconsin Council on Children and Families published this on W2's tenth anniversary, comparing the conflicting assessments of two poverty researchers, one of whom had been a long-term advocate of the scheme, but now considered it to have failed -- citing research to underline her point.

It's worth noting that W2 launched against the backdrop of a taut employment market, even for Wisconsin, which typically enjoys lower unemployment than most US states -- and even then, W2 participants generally didn't move up the employment ladder, but into service and low-level manufacturing jobs they may well have got anyway. Attempting the same trick in a recession is a wholly different matter. What is the administrative overhead on forcing people into work that isn't there for them?

If, as 3 News claimed last night, the Welfare Working Group's report will recommend work-testing -- on pain of loss of benefit -- for DPB parents when their second child turns 14 weeks old, then the group has lost touch not only with logic, but with simple human decency.

Paula Rebstock says a government that took up the report's recommendations would have to acknowledge that it would cost more money in the short term. Danyl insists there will be no long term: "Like almost everything this government does, ‘welfare reform’ will be a political advertising campaign and nothing more."

The report will focus not only on the DPB but sickness and invalid's benefits, and recommend more stringent work-testing, to the point of defining the hours per week that individual beneficiaries are capable of working. Work and Income has been tightening up on such benefits for a year or more -- quite frequently in defiance of its own rules -- and the consequences of that have been fairly alarming: tame GPs making assessments they are not qualified to make, confusing edicts, vulnerable applicants being denied assistance to which they are entitled.

My confidence in a much more complicated system working fairly and efficiently is extremely low. And I think the chance of meaningful measures to really expand the work choices of disabled people is basically nil.

I share the view that as a general principle, it is better for people to be in work than out of it. But I suspect that a good part of the electorate doesn't fully appreciate how difficult things already are.

Feel free to discuss. I'm more interested in light than heat here: bring your rhetorical A-game, not your fightin' words.

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