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March 7, 2011 | by  | in Opinion |
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Politics With Paul – The Welfare Working Group

J

ust hours before the recent devastating Christchurch earthquake, the Welfare Working Group (WWG) released its final report, which looked set to dominate the domestic news agenda for at least that week. Of course, the earthquake ended up hijacking the agenda, and apart from a few opinion posts here and there, the media never really had the opportunity to flesh this one out, and understandably so.

The predictions were of recommend-ations for an overhaul of the New Zealand welfare system not seen since the days of Ruth Richardson, and the report certainly delivered in many respects. It addresses what it terms an “unacceptably high” welfare bill, and contains 43 recommendations for reform across its 180 pages.

The key recommendation calls for a single Jobseeker Support payment, to be administered by a new crown agency entitled Employment and Support New Zealand, which would replace all existing benefits. Effectively, this shunts all beneficiaries onto a fixed rate (the dole), with extras for those entitled to sickness and disability, sole parenthood etc., added as supplementary payments to the fixed rate. Potentially, this could facilitate a better-functioning system, able to identify and help the vulnerable, while encouraging those who can, back into work.
Some of the recommendations further into the report are a little more eyebrow-raising though. The standout proposal, which found its way into the media shortly before the release of the report, concerns itself with changing the age limits of children for work-testing their mothers. Currently, the DPB work-tests mothers when a child turns six, and the group recommends that age should drop to three—the same age that the 20 free hours of childcare kicks in. Unsurprisingly, John Key has indicated that this is a recommendation the government is likely to support.

However, Key stopped short of supporting the bewildering further recommendation, that this age limit be reduced to 14 weeks if a mother had a second child while still collecting her benefit—a move that the WWG says is aimed at removing the incentive for beneficiaries to have additional children. Notably, this is the only recommendation that was not unanimously endorsed by the WWG, and it’s pretty clear that Key has effectively ruled this out, commenting “Personally I feel a bit queasy about that, and so would New Zealanders.”
Furthermore, the WWG argue that if their 14-week policy failed, the Government should consider other “financial disincentives”, including the removal of any increase in financial assistance for parents who have a further child while on welfare. This alongside the wider recommendations of penalties for beneficiaries who fail to seek work, and fail or refuse employer drug-tests, are unlikely to do little more than deprive children for the sins of their parents. To be sure, the group do call for “additional monitoring” in these cases, but as with any bureaucratic system, it’s inevitable a few, if not many will fall between the cracks.

The other most striking recommen-dation, namely the proposal to give parents on welfare access to “long-acting, reversible” contraception, is another that will no doubt be dismissed by the Government. While I don’t buy into Sue Bradford’s warnings of “the beginnings of a eugenics policy worthy of Nazi Germany”, the proposal does skirt dangerously close to the edges of social engineering, and as such it clearly won’t, or at least shouldn’t, be a palatable option for National to sign onto, especially in an election year.
Ultimately, it is this ability to cherry-pick from these recommendations that is really important to remember. Key is highly unlikely to make significant changes while the country is still in recession. That would simply be political suicide. When the WWG was set up, it was expected New Zealand would be emerging from the recession, and the Government would be concentrating on getting people back into work. But, with a price tag that could reach well above $250 million annually to facilitate this reform, and with relatively few jobs for beneficiaries to fill in the current economic climate, much of the overall proposal is redundant.

To be sure, National will inevitably tinker with the system here and there, but if anything, the WWG report will simply make this seem moderate in the face of many of these recommendations.

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