It's For Their Own Good: Equating beneficiaries with drug addicts has long been one of the Right's most potent rhetorical strategies against the welfare state. It has now been given the official imprimatur of the Ministry of Social Development's senior medical advisor. What's next: "Arbeit Macht Frei" ?
THE EVIDENCE is said to be compelling: “for most individuals, working improves health and wellbeing and reduces psychological distress.” In fact, so convinced of the health benefits of employment is the Ministry of Social Development’s (MSD) senior health advisor, Dr David Bratt, that he equates putting patients on “welfare” with putting them on “an addictive debilitating drug with significant adverse effects to both the patient and their family (whanau) not dissimilar to smoking.”
Just think about that for a moment. The MSD’s senior health advisor is telling his fellow doctors that helping their patients access the state assistance to which, as citizens, they are legally entitled, is the same as “putting them on” methamphetamine, heroin or some other kind of “addictive debilitating drug”.
The Right’s decades-long rhetorical effort to associate being on a benefit with being hooked on drugs has thus been given the imprimatur of settled medical science. Henceforth, going to the MSD will be the equivalent of checking yourself into rehab. Everything that happens to you there will be about getting you off your welfare addiction and back into the healthy lifestyle of paid employment.
Of course, as medically verified drug addicts, the “welfare dependent” citizens themselves have no opinions worth considering. Everybody knows that junkies lie, cheat, steal – even prostitute themselves – to feed their habit. It is, therefore, vital that they not be mollycoddled by their case workers at the MSD. What is required, and what will, from now on, be meted out to these “addicts” is the “tough love” they so desperately need – and which the failed policies of “welfare entitlement” have for so long denied them.
And, just in case there are people out there in the community who object to this characterisation of New Zealand’s pioneering Welfare State as nothing more than a government sponsored tinnie house, the Ministry of Social Development has instituted a regime involving compulsory drug testing for “jobseekers”; tough sanctions for those with outstanding arrest warrants; and mandatory attendance at classes devoted to imparting parenting skills.
Which is as clear a way of delivering the message: “these people are all drug-taking criminals who persistently neglect and abuse their children”; as the MSD’s bureaucratic masters are willing to venture.
The National Party-led Government’s dramatic reform of New Zealand’s social welfare system marks an ominous turning-point in the country’s history. Never before has the state been willing to satisfy so completely the most punitive, the cruellest and the most nakedly sociopathic impulses of its wealthiest citizens.
The people behind these reforms know that there are simply not enough jobs to socially integrate the tens-of-thousands of “jobseekers” currently registered on the MSD’s books. And yet, they have no intention of following the example set by previous New Zealand Governments, in which the state itself provided the jobs so necessary to people’s health and wellbeing.
What they propose to do, instead, is force as many jobseekers as possible off the MSD’s books. They will achieve this objective by turning the experience of being on the MSD’s books into a nightmare of bureaucratic harassment and social stigmatisation.
Before the rest of New Zealand could accept such callous brutalisation, however, the National Party-led Government had first to transform welfare beneficiaries into useless and undeserving sub-humans. Their poverty had to be presented as the consequence of their own lack of application and self-discipline. They had to become idle ingrates: drug addicts and criminals; totally unworthy of decent people’s respect or compassion.
And now, because it is not made up of monsters, and for the sake of their hapless children, the Government is insisting that these creatures somehow be “persuaded” to turn their lives around. This time, however, the persuasion is not going to involve the use of carrots. This time the MSD is going to use a stick.
And, just as they were in Germany 75 years ago, the doctors are being asked to help. We must hope that Kiwi physicians turn out to be less enthusiastic social-engineers.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 July 2013.