Un-Persons: National's welfare policies only work politically because there are a huge number of voters who instantly relegate solo mothers and their children to a place outside the circle of respectable citizens. Only when paid employment reclaims them from the ranks of "the undeserving poor" do welfare beneficiaries stand the slightest chance of being accepted as a "decent, hard-working New Zealanders". Such is the cruel reality behind Mr Key's Pollyanna-ish "glad games".
IN ELEANOR PORTER’S classic children’s novel, Pollyanna, the orphaned heroine startles her misanthropic guardians with what she calls “the glad game”. No matter how bleak her prospects, Pollyanna always finds something to be glad about.
Listening to the Prime Minister wax eloquent about his government’s new welfare policy, I couldn’t help thinking of Pollyanna. Forty-six-thousand New Zealanders are to be purged from the welfare rolls over just four years, and Mr Key is glad. Why? Because, according to the Prime Minister, unemployed, sickness, invalid and domestic purposes beneficiaries will have individualised care wrapped around them like a cuddly blanket.
It’s a lovely thought. Thousands of young solo-mums will have their lives sensibly organised by an army of highly-qualified case-workers. Job training will be made available to all, while their kiddies are looked after in top-notch child-care centres. New MSD swipe-cards will keep these eager job-seekers safe from the temptations of booze, tobacco and God knows what else. Their weekly rent will afford them warm and commodious accommodation.
And all of this will be achieved at the very reasonable cost of just 50 million additional dollars, spread over four years. Presumably, this “new money” will be added to the $130 million per annum already spent moving beneficiaries from welfare to work. So, let’s see: $50 million divided by four equals $12.5 million per year to be spent assisting 11,500 beneficiaries (46,000 divided by 4) into the paid workforce. Hmmm? That’s just $1,086.95 per beneficiary.
Can professionally trained case-workers, high-quality child-care, affordable and appropriate housing stock and effective job-training services really be provided for just $1,086.95 of additional resources per person?
And what about the Government’s boast that getting 46,000 beneficiaries back into the workforce over four years will save the taxpayer one billion dollars – that’s $250 million a year. Or is it? Don’t forget, the estimated annual cost of getting 11,500 people off the welfare roll is $130 million + $12.5 million or $142.5 million. Which means that the annual net benefit to the taxpayer isn’t $250 million, but a much more modest $107.5 million. The saving over four years is more likely to be $430 million – not $1 billion.
Not forgetting, of course, that for there to be any net benefit to the taxpayer at all sufficient new jobs will have to be created to: 1) absorb the normal number of school-leavers and graduates entering the workforce; 2) re-employ workers in businesses which have been sold, shut down or failed; and 3) provide jobs for the 11,500 “Jobseekers” the Government intends to purge from its rolls every year for the next four years.
That’s a very big ask – especially for a government recovering from a global economic recession which added 60,000 people to the welfare rolls. The Prime Ministers glad-game notwithstanding, New Zealanders’ employment prospects remain bleak.
Isn’t it more likely that the $1,086.95 per person of “new money” will be expended on the “services” of a vastly expanded army of “assessors”? Medical professionals (many of them, perhaps, retired, or holding overseas qualifications) who will be expected to tell thousands of sick citizens that they have been “re-assessed”, and that, overnight, they have quite miraculously become “job fit” and, therefore, ineligible for Mr Key’s new “Jobseeker Support” payment?
And, isn’t it equally likely that the Ministry of Social Development will hire scores of new, minimally-trained, case-workers to harry and prod, prod and harry solo mums and unemployed workers into taking any kind of work, no matter how intermittent or unsuitable, so that the number of citizens in receipt of state support can be shown to be trending downwards?
Or, perhaps, the MSD won’t hire any new staff at all. Perhaps the responsibility for managing those receiving Jobseeker and Sole Parent Support payments will be contracted out to private enterprise. The more jobseekers and sole parents they purged from the welfare rolls, the higher the profits of these private agencies would climb.
It’s what happens in Australia – and it’s what the Welfare Working Group set up by Mr Key’s government recommended.
Pollyanna transformed a whole town by refusing to be beaten-down by circumstances, and by unlocking in her neighbours an altruism they’d long been encouraged to repress. Is it a similar, altruistic, game Mr Key is playing with New Zealand’s beneficiaries? Or will he just be glad to see them gone?
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald and The Greymouth Star on Friday, 4 November 2011.