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working hard hardly working
May 25, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Working Hard, or Hardly Working

As students, we complain about Work and Income subjecting us to endless loops of Dave Dobbyn while we wait to update our Student Allowance details. The WINZ experience is far worse for those society views less favourably. What happens when we’re no longer protected by the safety net of a student loan?

Lydia Stott was looking for work in the film and television industry. Lydia signed up with WINZ for Jobseeker Support – receiving a benefit of around $170 per week. She was, after all, a job-seeker. After a few weeks, Lydia was offered unpaid work experience on a film set. Excited, she informed her case manager of the opportunity. Lydia’s case manager told her that being on Jobseeker Support required her to be available for work at all times; working on this film would make her unavailable.

WINZ made Lydia attend the same one-day course, five days in a row, to prove she was keeping herself available for work – preventing her from working on the film set during the day.

Many of us take for granted that we have to work for a living. We assume everyone can, and wants to, work. Of course, there are alternatives. We could become communists. We could live off the land, grow vegetables, and warm our feet by a fire while warning our children of the mysterious beast called Capitalism.

A society that works to live requires a social-security system to support those who become incapacitated from employment. The system must address recognised social contingencies – sickness, unemployment, maternity, employment injury, invalidity, old age, death, the need for medical care, and child rearing.

The idea that the state has an obligation to provide support when a person is incapacitated by these contingencies is relatively new – our state welfare system has only been in place since the institution of the Social Security Act 1938.

The founding principle of our system is simple: social security is the responsibility of the community, and the state’s role is to redistribute income to ensure everyone lives with dignity. The aim of our system is to sustain life and health, and empower everyone to participate in the community. Government welfare reforms and loud bigoted opinions are increasingly frustrating this goal.

Welfare Law Lecturer at Victoria University, Māmari Stephens, writes that reforms of the past six years, which have cut benefit rates and encouraged employment, “[emphasise] the need for financial restraint, the reduction of welfare dependency and an emphasis on self-reliance.” In short, New Zealand’s welfare system is described as addressing a person’s needs.

By conceptualising social security as a system for meeting individual needs, we leave open the question of whose responsibility it is to meet these needs – which have previously been addressed by families, charities and churches. Since the Government began funding social security in 1938, the extent of the Government’s obligations has remained contentious. The need-based rhetoric opens up discussion of whether people seeking assistance should have to fulfil reciprocal obligations – work-testing, drug-testing, attending meetings, active job-seeking – in order to receive state-funded benefits.

The top ten per cent of income-earners pay 71 per cent of the total income tax the Government receives. Most of the ten per cent will never have experienced true destitution. With a majority of their money funding state benefits, it’s inevitable that the rich feel a sense of entitlement to dictate the terms of use of ‘their’ money. If popular opinion among the rich is that beneficiaries are lazy, the Government imposes an obligation on beneficiaries to actively seek work. To maintain rich voters’ support, the Government must be seen to address their concerns – whether they’re well-founded or not.

Some pretty fucked-up bigotry circulating as popular opinion (take ‘All beneficiaries should be drug-tested!’ as an example) has encouraged a trend in our welfare system – WINZ requires people to meet obligations to get their benefits. These obligations are increasingly moralistic. Drug-testing was introduced in July 2013 “to help people… get ready for employment.” Roughly 40 per cent of the jobs listed with WINZ require applicants to pass a drug test. While the drug test is for the job, not for the benefit, there are some obligations beneficiaries must satisfy to retain government support.

Recipients of Jobseeker Support are obliged to ensure dependent children in their care have access to health services and education – WINZ decides whether they are parenting in the ‘right way’ or not. Jobseekers also have to attend any work training WINZ requests – whether they’re interested in that sort of work or not – as we saw with Lydia. Suddenly, the Government has the power to tell benefit recipients how to care for their children, and what kind of work they should do.

The Government doesn’t have this kind of power over income-earners. They can do whatever work makes them happy, and make their own decisions about how to educate their children. It’s pretty disgusting that just because people need financial assistance, the Government starts taking control of their lives. Why should the Government dictate that paid employment trumps volunteering and parenting?

This moral direction of beneficiaries is what a needs-based system enables. Our welfare system, and the way we think about it, suggests the Government is doing beneficiaries a ‘favour’ by supporting them, and beneficiaries should be grateful. This logic was articulated by J. K. Rowling, who agreed with Jon Stewart that she is “the perfect example of a good investment from the government.” Rowling said she chose to stay in the UK so that she could pay tax – she felt she “owed” the Government for their support.

This rhetoric explains why we’re not outraged by the fact that people aged 65+ are paid $300 a week just for being old. Most social security goes to old people who have other sources of income. Why isn’t this allocation of state resources more contentious? Baby Boomers aren’t getting any younger; they’re about to cost us a whole lotta money. If they’ve been paying tax all their lives, aren’t they entitled to superannuation? Well, no. It’s not an insurance scheme. The Government doesn’t put your tax in an envelope to give you on your 65th birthday. It’s the price we pay to participate in society, to have the facilities we do, and the safety net of a welfare system to fall back on when times are hard.

Surely for citizens of a governed community, the provision of welfare is a basic human right to be fulfilled by the state – not just a need that could be met by anyone. Doesn’t everyone deserve to sustain life and health, and participate in the community? By saying that everyone has a right to food, rather than everyone needs food, an obligation is placed on the Government to satisfy that right – what’s the point of having government if not to protect our human rights?

Political pressures and administrative issues make it difficult to predict what shape a rights-based system would take. It’d certainly take more than legislative change to alter entrenched attitudes towards benefit recipients. But we should at least think of social security as a right. Rather than beneficiaries owing a debt to the Government, surely the Government owes its citizens the means to enjoy full participation in the community it controls, if people can’t achieve it themselves. Basic human welfare is not just something we need, but something we have a right to as citizens.

The Green Party’s Income Support Policy proposes to investigate the institution of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), exemplifying the conception of social security as a human right. A UBI removes targeting and discrimination between people by transferring a basic income to everyone aged 18+. Citizens can then choose to work and earn money to supplement this, or can live comfortably while they study, parent, volunteer, or write the next Harry Potter. Under Gareth Morgan’s proposed UBI, the Big Kahuna, students would be paid $8500 per year – enough to live on, frugally. With some part-time work, there’d be no need for a student loan for living costs. Students over 20 would be paid $11,000. Tax rates on wages would go up, but it sounds worth it for eight grand in the hand, right? Lydia could have spent time completing work experience, rather than sitting through irrelevant seminars.

It’s a contradiction that when it comes to participation in the marketplace, the Government promotes individual freedom, yet when the market fails to provide, the Government becomes paternalistic and dictates how people should live. Lydia had an opportunity to enter the working community she wanted, and WINZ said no because it didn’t meet their requirements. WINZ shoot themselves in the foot when they refuse to respect individuality and give people the social security that is rightfully theirs as a citizen of New Zealand. And they call it Jobseeker Support.

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