(This is part two of a two-part series on the current “welfare reform” policy – part one is here)
I have a friend who says that Paula Bennett‘s welfare policy is fine, and it’s not beneficiary-bashing, because if you (only) look at the individual policies, they’re not really as bad as they first appear; some of them are quite reasonable and even potentially helpful.
I think this is quite generous. There may be things that can be done on an individual level to help beneficiaries and reduce their reliance on welfare, but these aren’t constructive or intelligent measures; I take issue with how hypocritical, worryingly controlling, contrived and just plain stupid they are, the effects on children in poverty, and the fact that overall they add up to welfare cuts.
But these specific policy effects are only part of the picture of welfare reform. We need to look at the entirety of what is being communicated if we want to understand “welfare reform” and its relationship to the phenomenon of “benny-bashing”.
The essential message of “welfare reform” is: The problem is with beneficiaries themselves. If someone can’t get a job it’s because they don’t have the right skills or attributes, not because there aren’t enough jobs to go around; if they’re not in paid work on top of raising a family and running a home, they’re leeching off the system, not making a choice mothers with partners are allowed to make; and if they don’t want to do a certain job it’s because they don’t have the right attitude, not because that job is dehumanising or abusive.
Of course, this message is a lot more subtle than the populist sentiments simmering just beneath the surface of the rich, the working poor and anyone who hasn’t had to rely on welfare themselves. Rather than saying beneficiaries are lazy, incompetent, drug-addicted, child-abusive, over-breeding criminals who think the government owes them a living, Bennett talks of an “investment approach” to welfare and unveils special new rules for beneficiaries only, to make sure they’re not taking drugs, opting out of optional early childhood education, having any more children, or refusing any job offer whatsoever.
It is indeed true that the actual policies are slightly gentler than the shriekings of talkback radio and internet comments. But the policy announcements still have the effect of dog-whistling support for these populist sentiments. In fact, she’ll often back down from earlier extreme statements; a shrewd strategy that allows her to satisfy our benny-bashing instincts, but then also satisfy our more reasonable natures that the policy isn’t going to be quite so harsh as it seemed.
So it’s clever politics, in that it allows National to affirm its identity as smart and careful with money, and tough but fair when it comes to the dole-bludging strawmen who are the main target of New Zealand’s two minutes’ hate.
Either way, it’s still repeating the essential message that it’s the beneficiaries who have the problem. But this is simply insufficient to explain why four years ago unemployment was the lowest in decades, and now it’s rapidly approaching 80s and 90s highs.
Sociologist C. Wright Mills used high unemployment rates as an example of something that cannot be properly understood or solved on a purely individual level; instead a “sociological imagination” is needed to connect personal problems with public issues.
The most obvious “public issue” at play here is the global financial crisis and recession. Our worst periods of unemployment since at least the 80s have all followed periods of negative economic growth; compare this with this.
Paula Bennett actually admitted in April that there simply aren’t enough jobs in the current economic climate. Bill English certainly knows this, and is trying to get us back to economic growth by following the dubious neo-liberal formula.
Of course, this will only be a temporary solution until the next recession brings another wave of unemployment. A more long-term solution would be to address the economic system itself; to change the way the economy operates so that it doesn’t rely on periodic bouts of recession and unemployment. As Mills put it; “In so far as an economy is so arranged that slumps occur, the problem of unemployment becomes incapable of personal solution.”
Unfortunately, this government is not about to challenge the basic shape of the capitalist system, or even its recent neo-liberal form. In fact, the current National party are the ideological progeny of the neo-liberals who argued in the 80s and 90s that unemployment is good, because it keeps wages low, which is great for business. They might not make such bold statements nowadays, but they still believe that an underpaid and desperate workforce is what we need to bring about the utopia of economic growth.
To really solve unemployment would require the government to re-think their entire philosophy that says that unbridled capitalism is our lord and saviour – not the cause of problems like unemployment.
So they do what dominant groups have done throughout history when they don’t want to address societal issues in a way that might challenge their way of running things… They scapegoat marginal individuals for the problems of the whole society, and consolidate power by uniting the majority against these scapegoats; in this case beneficiaries.
It makes perfect sense why they’d do this; it’s the best way for National to gain politically out of the situation, even if nobody else does. But with rising unemployment, record inequality and obscene child poverty, blaming and punishing the victims is not the kind of welfare “reform” we need right now.
(This is part one of a two-part series on the current “welfare reform” policy; part two is here)
Although Paula Bennett won’t bother measuring child poverty, she’s measured how much her welfare “reforms” are going to save: $1.6 billion. Contrary to Bill English’s assurances, this is the expected follow-up to an obscure and expensive statistic about the “lifetime cost” of beneficiaries, whatever that means ($78 billion, if you’re interested – and only 5% of that is for unemployment beneficiaries, but that distinction will be obscured by the new categories).
Saving money on welfare would be great if it meant people were rising above the social safety net rather than having it pulled out from under them. If the economy was working and everyone was holding down good jobs, we could save on welfare, like we did four years ago when unemployment was at its lowest in decades.
But we can’t fix the economy by cutting welfare – that’s confusing cause and effect. When unemployment is high and getting higher, inequality is at record highs and we have 270,000 children living in poverty, mostly from beneficiary families, we’re going to have to spend more on the safety net if we want to be humane, not less.
Current government policy basically amounts to: lots of people relying on welfare –> push more people off welfare into paid work –> make a crowded job market even more crowded –> lots of people relying on welfare. This vicious circle does nothing to acknowledge that there are problems with the economy and the workforce as well as problems with beneficiaries – and it certainly does nothing to fix these wider issues. Pleading with employers to hire boot camp graduates, and keeping the minimum wage low based on a discredited neo-liberal premise, is not a sufficient job-creation strategy; and sacrificing to the gods of neo-liberal capitalism until economic growth comes back is not working so far.
So I find it rather disturbing that Bennett is boasting about cutting welfare as if that’s the answer to poverty and unemployment.
Of course, welfare reform isn’t all about saving money – $1.6 billion isn’t that much to a government who spent the same amount bailing out South Canterbury Finance, and some of the changes will cost more than they save.
But this does confirm that what we’re basically talking about with “welfare reform” is welfare cuts. The fact that Bennett can portray welfare cuts at this time as a good thing is a symptom of the deep-set benny-bashing sentiments of the general population – which I’ll discuss in my next blog, on the basic message of “welfare reform”.