Politics is all about setting the agenda. This year, John Key’s state of the nation address has everybody talking about benefi ciaries. Are there people in New Zealand who view benefits as a career option?
Pita Sharples seems to think so. He opined that New Zealand should look at reintroducing a work-for-the-dole scheme. His comments have been somewhat lost in the Phillip Field and carbon-neutrality hype of the past few weeks, but it begs the question: is such a scheme needed?
The raw numbers tell one side of the story. Since 1999, the number of people on benefits has dropped from 401,415 to 286,641. Employment and Social Development Minister David Benson-Pope attributes the drop in unemployment benefits, from 161,128 in 1999 to 38,796, to “good luck and good management”. Sickness and invalids benefits have increased from a combined 85,085 to 125,465 over the same seven years.
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National argues that Labour relocates people from the unemployment benefit to the sickness or invalids benefit. This is refuted by Benson-Pope who points out that to be placed on such a benefit requires medical approval.
The figures remain silent on whether people see benefits as a lifestyle option. Sharples has reignited a debate about how to make benefits less attractive.
Benson-Pope is riled at suggestions that the current government has fostered such attitudes. “There is no core Labour Party value that says anyone can make a lifestyle choice to be supported by anybody else,” he says.
ACT’s Heather Roy believes that schemes such as work-for-the-dole or compulsory training should be considered. Roy says that the work-for-the-dole policy of the 1990s was “on the right track. Some people depend on the government…it is important to do something in return”.
When questioned about the possibility of Labour reintroducing work-for-the-dole schemes, Benson-Pope gave an emphatic ‘no’. However, Kay Brereton of the Wellington People’s Centre believes that the current government is paving the way for a return to such a scheme through the State Securities Amendment Bill.
The bill removes the option for beneficiaries to perform voluntary work in order to receive unemployment benefit payments. They must instead look only for paid work.
Sue Bradford, the Greens’ industrial spokesperson, says “the problem is not about employment but unemployment and discrimination against beneficiaries”.
Bradford believes that any work-for-the-dole scheme would have a negative impact on unemployed persons as they would be doing the same work as paid workers but would not be on the same wage, and draws the analogy of work-for-the-dole workers occupying a “different place at the tea room”. She has concerns that the minimum wage may not be paid and points out that any such scheme would have little protection for workers through unions.
While Sharples and National’s welfare spokesperson Judith Collins were unavailable to comment, Roy outlined that any schemes to get beneficiaries back into work would have to be about more than just organising jobs. Roy says that “people need different types of help” which must cover areas such as childcare and other types of basic training.
Benson-Pope points out that Labour has several initiatives in place to ensure beneficiaries are focused on getting work. The new Working New Zealand: Work-Focused Support programme outlines strategies to support beneficiaries towards joining the workforce.
One scheme that Benson-Pope is particularly excited about involves getting long-term sickness beneficiaries into the workforce by encouraging them to get jobs voluntarily. While only being trialled, such a scheme has around a 20 percent success rate. Benson-Pope believes this shows that beneficiaries in general want to get jobs and not simply be parked on sickness benefits.
Brereton is more positive: “99 percent of beneficiaries want to get off [the benefit]”.
For the first time in years the political agenda has shifted to New Zealand’s poor people, beneficiaries or the ‘underclass’. While it is hardly news that New Zealand has poor people, Sharples has reignited the debate about getting long-term beneficiaries back into work.
The Labour Party can point to positive statistics and pilot schemes to prove that in numerical terms, more New Zealanders are working. But whether those on the unemployment benefit have the will to work, and how to ensure that beneficiaries are encouraged to see government payouts as a last resort, yet not infringe on their rights, is a debate that will continue.