Saturday 14 August 2010

Scrooge's Ghosts

"Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?" The heartless cry of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol was intended to expose the moral vacuum at the heart of laissez-faire capitalism. The same "airless quality" is present in the first report of the Welfare Working Group. The Painting is Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward by Luke Fildes, 1874. Food and shelter in the "Casual Ward" of the parish workhouse were made available to all comers - but only for a single night.

GORDON CAMPBELL described the report as having a "peculiarly airless quality". It’s authors, hermetically sealed in their ideological cocoon, could have been writing "at any time over the past four decades".

The veteran journalist is right. The report of the Government’s Welfare Working Group (WWG) makes not the slightest attempt to interrogate the flesh and blood world of contemporary unemployment, sole parenting, chronic illness and invalidism. But, then, why would it – when it already knows all the answers?

In the WWG’s own words:

"We have come to the view that the scale and consequences of long-term benefit receipt are deeply concerning and that the system is not achieving what New Zealanders could reasonably expect. It is not sustainable, it does not provide equal and fair opportunities for those people on different benefit types and it is associated with poor social outcomes."

Let’s unpack that extraordinarily dangerous statement.

To begin with, who are the people identified by the WWG Chair, economist Paula Rebstock, as being in "long-term benefit receipt". Overwhelmingly, they are those on sickness, invalids, and domestic purposes benefits: people who can’t work; people whose physical or mental disability makes ordinary paid work impossible; and people engaged in the raising of babies and small children.

What on earth is so "deeply concerning" about providing long-term support to such people? If you’re suffering from a temporary or chronic affliction; if you lack the resources required to look after a young family; then to whom should you appeal for assistance – if not your fellow citizens?

What would be "deeply concerning" is a society which defined sickness, invalidism and sole parenthood as self-inflicted conditions – sins which can only be expiated through the pain of social humiliation and the self-redeeming qualities of unrelenting toil.

The grim workhouses of Victorian England were erected on the flint-hard foundation of these vicious bourgeois prejudices. Deliberately constructed to terrify the poor into righteousness, they were known colloquially as "Bastilles" – after the grim Parisian fortress. So harsh were the regimes within these institutions that many risked death, rather than enter their prison-like gates.

In his celebrated 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, Dickens parodies the harshness of laissez-faire capitalism in the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. Listen to the exchange which a request for a donation to assist the poor provokes:

‘Are there no prisons?’ asked Scrooge.
‘Plenty of prisons,’ said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
‘And the Union workhouses.’ demanded Scrooge. ‘Are they still in operation?’
‘They are. Still,’ returned the gentleman, ‘I wish I could say they were not.’
‘The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?’ said Scrooge.
‘Both very busy, sir.’
‘Oh. I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,’ said Scrooge. ‘I’m very glad to hear it.’

When pressed, Scrooge’s parsimony turns deadly:

‘I wish to be left alone,’ said Scrooge. ‘Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned – they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.’
‘Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.’
‘If they would rather die,’ said Scrooge, ‘they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.’

There it is again, that airless quality, which Dickens’s storytelling makes explicit by enveloping Scrooge’s counting house in a dismal and noxious fog.

In the 167 years since A Christmas Carol’s first appearance, the world appears to have turned full circle. By the 1970s the Welfare State, which Mickey Savage described as "applied Christianity," had consigned the workhouse and the treadmill to history’s dustbin. But in the ensuing four decades, as Mr Campbell rightly observes, the noxious fog of laissez-faire capitalism has returned – along with the prejudices of epochs past.

And who will melt the hearts of these modern-day Scrooges?

For all their squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching and covetousness, the Victorians still knew themselves to be sinners, and were thus receptive to Dickens’s marvellous parable of Christian redemption.

In 2010, when only the spirits of Gain and Greed are admitted to Society’s feast, who will risk the WWG’s censure by insisting that we can afford to – and should – "make idle people merry"?

This essay was originally published in The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 13 August 2010.


Victor said...

An excellent post, Chris.

As you suggest; Scrooge, Gadgrind et al were typical of only one stream (albeit a very powerful one) of Victorian thinking.

Where is our Dickens,our George Elliott or our Elizabeth Gaskell to puncture the self-satisfied inhumanity of our latter-day, local Gadgrinds?

Where is our Robert Owen or our John Ruskin?

Meanwhile, take a look at this amazing photo from the very early days of the camera. At first, I thought it was a painting:,_Kennington_Common.jpg

Anonymous said...

Chris, with one in six live births in NZ to a mum who is on the DPB or about to go on the DPB this is unsustainable.

With 42% of those mothers Maori, this is the worst cultural crisis they have faced since colonialism.

With half these mums being teenagers, the statistics are even more appalling.

Providing a State funded financial incentive for these children to become mothers and to retain their children is nothing short of scandalous.

There is nothing compassionate about consigning a teenage mum to a life of State funded poverty, and their child to the highest possible risk of abuse, educational under achievement, welfare dependency and crime.

The way to put out a fire is to starve it of fuel.

We cannot change the benefit system for those already on it, but we have to serve notice, that this is not going to continue in its present form.

Yes, for mothers whose partners abuse them, are taken before the courts and /or a non-molestation order is taken out against them.

Yes, for mothers who can demonstrate abandonment after being in a relationship of two or more years.

No if you are a teenager, or unable to demonstrate abuse or abandonment. No if you are an existing DPB recipient having another child.

Unplanned pregnancy raises an obligation between the mother and the father, or in his absence, the mother and her family or whanau. It has nothing to do with the tax payer.

Now is a good time to set this policy to rights. Personally however I believe the present Government will do nothing of the sort, so that should keep the left happy at least.

Kind regards

Sanctuary said...

"...The way to put out a fire is to starve it of fuel..."

Way to go Einstein.

Is this a masterpiece of sophisticated irony?

Victor said...


The child is the taxpayer's responsibility because every child in New Zealand is everyone's responsibility, even though the parent should normally carry the greatest share thereof.

We are not lone, a-social beings, wandering through a deserted forest, our voices echoing through the emptiness.

We are members of a social species, inheritors of millennia of social capital and trustees of our joint future.

Victor said...

For those interested, the photograph I referred to in a previous post on this thread can be found on the Wikipedia entry on Chartism.

Sorry that the hyper-link didn't work out

RedLogix said...

A while back I got fed up with a workmate banging on about scum-sucking benefit-bludgers.

Rather pointedly I asked him if he expected them to starve quietly under a bridge somewhere... or had he considered the possibility that at least some of them might be bold enough to come knocking on the bosses door offering to do our jobs for say, half our pay?

Rather quietened him down. (It's such a bloody obvious point, but it's amazing how few people get to it unaided.)

RedLogix said...

There is nothing compassionate about consigning a teenage mum to a life of State funded poverty

Which is true, but overlooks the root cause of poverty, the failure to form stable families. The reason for that primarily lies with the inability of a whole strata of young men to generate a stable income.

However much modern notions of gender equality like to play it down, the fact remains that young women will instinctively seek to have children, a biological urge that cannot be turned off. If at all possible they will seek a mate to assist them in the task but regardless, pregnant they will get and children will be the result. No amount of middle-class fulminating will change this one iota.

The simple fact is that around 30% of all Maori in their 20's will have passed through the not so tender care of the Dept of Corrections, that a majority of them are either unemployed, under-employed or on miserably low minimum wages which are barely enough for them to live on, much less raise a family. It's not a promising pool of husband/father material.

Young women are going to have children, whether any of us like it or not... the only real question is whether there are any suitable young men available to help them. That's the root of the "DPB problem" as you see it. Deal to that; quit kicking the kids.

Carol said...

RL, you make very good points. In addition to what you say, it's not just men that poverty impacts with respect to failure to form stable families.

There's been intitiatives internationally that focuses on education for women as an important factor in countering poverty.

Educated girls and women are less vulnerable to HIV infection, human trafficking and other forms of exploitation, are more likely to marry later, raise fewer children who are more likely to go to school, and make important contributions to family income.

But our current government also is developing policies that further disadvantage males and females from lower economic backgrounds in all areas of education, from early childhood to tertiary and higher education.

sagenz said...

Victor - Well said. You really get it. Rebstock and the WWG seem to get it also.
Chris and the other commenters here are making the mistake of taking a completely short term view.

The issue is not a compassionate community response to short term misfortune.

The issue is addressing those who choose to lead lives of unremitting indolence, financed by those of us who lead lives of toil.

You will never get anything approaching prosperity, dignity and community stability with a low crime rate by allowing people to opt out for the long term. There are people who have never worked. Why is that right? Gates and Buffett have recognised their wealth would corrode future generations of descendants if they passed their money on to their children. The same logic applies to citizens. We have a moral obligation to provide support at times of misfortune but we are not being compassionate or wise to perpetuate a system that excludes generations from a productive, fulfilled life.

sagenz said...

heh - word verification was "whorke"

Anonymous said...

Giving the DPB to teenagers is a bad idea.

Young girls need to be educated and upskilled. This is the best thing society can do for them and their future children. The vast majority of New Zealand girls are not having children in their teens- the urge to have children for most women is controllable.

The majority of girls who are having children in their teens are either emotionally needy or see no other future for themselves. These girls are the least likely to make a decent job of parenting. The children born into these situations often have a very hard life and little chance of success as adults themselves.

I would like to see an age minimum of 20 for the DPB, and also a stop to women having more children while receiving a benefit. The world is overpopulated - we can only create a better future for the planet if we have fewer, but more cherished, children born. The fewer children you have the easier it is to raise them well.

Sanctuary said...

"...I would like to see an age minimum of 20 for the DPB, and also a stop to women having more children while receiving a benefit..."

Tell me, dear anonymous, what would you do with the children of those young women who stubbornly refuse to partake in your utopian vision, and pop out a couple children at the age of sixteen or seventeen?

Would the crime of teenage childbirth be primarily carried in the starvation of the newborn? Or perhaps do you envisage workhouses, deliberately constructed to terrify these wanton young women and their tainted spawn into righteousness? Or do you favour forced adoption, where the children are taken into households of the deserving and their mothers forced to suffer the loss of their offspring as punishment for their irresponsible fertility?

I am fascinated to hear of how your propose to enact your dream.

Olwyn said...

Sagenz; either you or I have partly misunderstood Victor, I think. Given that Victor's earlier post expressed a plea for a modern Dickens, I take it that his "We are members of a social species, inheritors of millennia of social capital and trustees of our joint future," is aimed more at those of us who seek to exclude others from our concerns(like Ebenezer), rather than at positing those who have been squeezed out as "opting out," and therefore as deserving censure. Correct me if I'm wrong, Victor.

RedLogix's point that the root cause of poverty is the failure to form stable families, which is in turn caused by the inability to generate a stable income seems very applicable here.

The answer, for our social species, seems to lie with inclusion rather than exclusion, driven primarily by empathy more than censure.

As Chris has pointed out, however venal the 19th century people may have been, sentences such as "care for the widow and the orphan, with none but God to protect them," and "that which you do to the least of my brothers, you do unto me,' etc, were still meaningful to them, hence they were able to be receptive to Dickens and the like. Such conceptual resources have been all but removed from our public language, and are foreign to the language of Rebstock, etc.

Without such resources, we are in danger into devolving into technologically equipped creatures with the depth of understanding found in territorial swamp birds.

Victor said...


You are (as per normal) correct.

I'm not sure how Sagenz has managed to misunderstand me so completely.

I was responding to Brendan's comment about taxpayers having no responsibility towards an unmarried mother or (by logical extension) her child.

The mother is part of "us" and the child is part of our joint future. That's what living in a civil society is all about.

To quote the famous lines of John Donne:

"...No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee..."

I trust my meaning is now clear.

Victor said...

A further point is that, prior to the recession, New Zealand had very low unemployment...much lower than in most other OECD countries.

By and large, the problem is not the unemployed. It is recession and its consequences for the labour market.

Victor said...

Let me amend my previous statement to prevent further misunderstanding:

The problem is not the alleged reluctance of many New Zealanders to work. It's the shortage of jobs.

Anonymous said...

Hi Victor

I agree that we live in a community bound by mutual obligations and our shared our humanity.

While quoting John Donne is poetic, it fails to address the misery of increasing numbers on DPB welfare poverty, the statistical reality that most of our abused children come from homes consisting of a DPB mum and her live in boyfriend, or that these 'families' produce intergenerational welfare dependence, educational under achievement and crime.

The fact that up to 30% of all Maori women in their 20's are on welfare is a national shame.

Our collective responsibility does not require us to persist in this dysfunctional behaviour, in fact the opposite is true. It's time to say publicly that its 'not all right' for our teenage children to have babies and become dependent upon the state.

Children deserve both a mum and a dad in their lives. The State has never performed well as a parent.

There are thousands of childless couples who would love to adopt and provide a loving, stable, secure home for any child in an 'open adoption' arrangement.

Let's stop kidding ourselves. The present system is killing our children, and State funding of this dysfunction is at least in part responsible. If we support these policies then we have these children's blood on our hands, and no amount of prose will cleanse it.


Julie said...

Actually Brendan I'm not convinced that there are 1000s of childless couples looking to adopt. There's no waiting list for adoption in NZ - you go through some training, a police vet, you put together a profile, and then at any point a mother can pick you. You could wait a few hours, weeks, months or even years. But there's no waiting list as such.

There are less than 100 non-family adoptions in NZ each year.

Most of the children who need adoption in NZ aren't babies, but older kids. But many of the couples looking to adopt do want a baby. Perhaps if we provided more support for parents and children, rather than the less you seem to be advocating, we wouldn't end up with so many broken children, and broken adults, in the first place.

Olwyn said...

Brendan: Did you note RedLogix's point, that this "overlooks the root cause of poverty, the failure to form stable families. The reason for that primarily lies with the inability of a whole strata of young men to generate a stable income. "

Or Victor's point, that prior to the recession we had very low unemployment, so we cannot assume that people are simply reluctant to work.

"This dysfunctional behaviour" seems to be contingent on economic structures that degrade people rather than over-generosity with doles. If people were not deprived of the means for building lives they would for the most part build lives, and not need doles. And if there is employment around, people work; evidence of this is so recent it is surprising that anyone could have forgotten so soon.

Olwyn said...

A further note: the evidence that most people really do want to build lives, rather than passively bludge off someone else can be seen in the numbers who left Dickens' England to try their luck on the far side of the world, and the numbers of Kiwis who now emigrate to Australia.

Victor said...

Hi Brendan

I agree with you about the monumental nature of the problem of intergenerational exclusion and the urgency with which it needs to be addressed.

And, of course, I also agree that the state has never performed well as a parent.

But you do not typically stop a deep wound from bleeding by just denying bandage. Instead the wound just gets septic.

I might agree with cutting back on welfare for unmarried mums if I believed that the ready availability of payments was the sole factor encouraging teenage girls to have babies and teenage boys to walk away from their responsibilities.

But there is a complex mix of economic, social, cultural, educational, psychological and ethical factors at work here.

Moreover(particularly in the current economic climate), I suspect that you would only deepen the chasm of exclusion and cause a great deal more human suffering if you cut off this rather paltry form of support.

And,whatever you decide to do or not do on this issue, it still requires a policy decision and is, hence, by definition, the concern of the tax payer.

I also think we have to ask serious questions about whether forcing people into the work force is the best thing for them, for the future of our economy or for the long term development of our society.

Prior to the recession, we had incredibly low unemployment and a skill shortage across just about every facet of our economy.

When/if recovery occurs, this situation will repeat itself. We're not going to find the skilled, enthusiastic and focussed workers the economy will then need in droves by dragooning the unwilling and unskilled with threats of even more dire poverty than they currently face.

Nor are we going to make home environments more nurturing for children by imposing long and unwanted hours away from home on their mothers.

Nor will we be doing anything to make feckless young fathers less feckless.

A few months back, during the UK election, I reverted psychologically to an older identity as an English Liberal, reacted positively to the Lib Dems' accession to office in the land of my birth and was duly caned for it by other posters on this site (Hi Carol).

Well, along with an apparent majority of those who actually voted Lib Dem, I now regret my enthusiasm.

Clegg & co. have signed up for cuts to the health and welfare systems as draconian as anything delivered by Maggie T and have reneged totally on their party's long-standing commitment to Keynesian economics.

But, I will give the Lib Dems a few small brownie points for insisting that the Tory-led coalition lifts much of the direct tax burden off the working poor.

Contrast that with our own Tory government's downward (and economically nonsensical) redistribution of the tax burden and ponder whether more carrot and less stick might not be a better policy mix.

I also think we need to re-think whether inclusion in the workforce is the only way of combating exclusion from society and its benefits. And we certainly need to give greater value to the domestic and nurturing skills of both women and men. For it is on these skills, above all, that the future of our society depends.

We haven't been doing that very well of late. But the answer surely isn't to stop doing it.

Anonymous said...

Sanctuary- this is not Victorian England. Girls today have sex education, birth control, access to abortion and career and education opportunities- they are not powerless victims of their fertility.

Girls who carry on with teen pregnancies do so because it is acceptable in their social circles to do so, and because they see no better future for themselves. I have teenage children and there are occasionally pregnancies amongst their peers but I don't know of a single one that has not ended in a termination. In most families teen pregnancy is seen as a life wrecking disaster and abortion, for better or for worse, is the solution of choice.

Making an age limit for the DPB will deter some girls from having babies as a career choice. And some do see it as a career choice! And as for the rest- they need to be the responsibility of their families. No teenage girl, with or without the DPB, has much of a chance at being a successful parent without a lot of support from their family.

And if there is no family support then open adoption might give the baby the best chance of a good life. Adoption has a chequered history, but leaving babies with unfit birth parents has led to worse outcomes.

I am so sick of the parade of misery caused by abusive and neglectful parents- something needs to change. A start would be removing any financial incentives for young girls to have children with immature, loser males. And also create financial disincentives to discourage those few silly women who think they can make the DPB a lifetime career by popping out a child every few years to yet another feckless male. The kids born into this sort of situation just don't have a hope.

Victor said...


To be fair, there weren't many opportunities for 'bludging' in Dickensian England (which is why Oliver Twist was denied more gruel).

But your overall point is well made.

Victor said...


Yes, there are teenage girls who are foolish enough to see recurrent pregnancy as a rational career choice.

But how big a proportion of teenage mums do you think they represent?

Why blight the lives of all the others and all their children by denying them a minimal and niggardly level of financial support?

Yes, we should encourage young women to get an education. How easy would that be for them if they had to look after their kids and hold down one or more low-wage jobs to keep the wolf from the door?

Olwyn said...

I agree Victor, bludging was the wrong word when applied to Dickensian London. My main point was that generally people prefer to build lives than lead random, degraded ones, and that this shows in the willingness of many to emigrate when life-building proves impossible.

Victor said...


Absolutely.....and to an amazing extent.

markus said...

All this talk about John Donne has reminded me of one of the greatest songs of all time - Van Morrison's "(Rave on) John Donne" [c1975]. Naturally, I'm talking here about the simple, pure studio-version (on 'Inarticulate Speech of the Heart' Album) rather than the over-the-top live version.

Della said...

I just cannot believe that an educated man with teenage children so badly wants to believe in the "DPB Mums who breed for a living" story. Women have babies for complex reasons, and a female who has a baby is by definition a woman even if she's 14 - but a pittance of a benefit isn't one of them, no matter what she might later, defiantly say to her angry Dad... (Better than admitting to him that she had an unrealistic Romeo and Juliet view of life, hey?)