You’ve probably noticed there’s been a groundswell of awareness, dismay and outrage about child poverty lately, particularly since the Children’s Commissioner convened a panel of experts to come up with suggestions about how to solve it. This could be a great opportunity for this government to create a positive legacy by actually doing something in response to the countless statistics and stories of poverty emerging in New Zealand over the last twenty-five or thirty years.
In fact, if they wanted to, this government could actually do a lot more about child poverty than a Labour government could… they wouldn’t have to worry about a right-wing opposition lambasting them for nanny-state-taxpayer-money-wasting-social-engineering (well, except John Banks, when he turns up). They could take significant action, even expensive action, without damaging their political reputation – they may well improve it by showing a more compassionate face.
So, win-win, right? Well, let’s have a look at how they’ve responded so far to the main recommendations from the Expert Advisory group on child poverty…
“Six of the best ideas for change“ (Andrew Laxon, The New Zealand Herald 06/10/2012)
1. Free meals in schools
This was Mana policy in the last election; since then it’s become John Campbell’s hobby horse and Labour policy. Actually, I recently learned that John Key signalled support for measures like this in 2007, saying National would start organising businesses to fund meals in poor schools while in opposition, rather than waiting to be in government.
Now that they’re in government, Bill English, chair of the ministerial committee on poverty, has said that children are going hungry because they’re in “homes where there is not a strong sense of responsibility”; but that it’s the responsibility of the whole society to “do something about that”. It’s hard to know what this means; but he has signaled that he’s open to the idea of providing meals in schools. However, his press secretary hastened to add that “no new decisions have been made“. Both have been busily citing statistics to show that kids going without meals isn’t as widespread as we think, so I don’t think we should be too hopeful too soon.
2. A warrant of fitness for all rental housing
John Key hasn’t exactly embraced this wholeheartedly, but he hasn’t completely ruled it out, saying “There’s probably some limits to what Government can do but we may be able to encourage landlords to increase the quality of their property.” Bill English is arguably even more interested, though worried it will push housing prices up. Again, let’s wait and see… no ‘new decisions’ yet.
3. Every child enrolled with health and social services at birth
They’re actually doing some stuff along these lines, but only for beneficiaries. By not extending these “social obligations” to everyone, and by adding sanctions without increasing support or availability, they can’t avoid the suspicion that they’re more motivated by putting pressure on beneficiaries than helping children.
4. Universal child payment
We had something similar to this until 1991, and of course we still have universal payments to the elderly. It seems to be working, or at least helping people who need help the least – 10% of the elderly are below the poverty line, while 25% of children are (up from 4% and 10% respectively in 1986). A welfare expert who visited the country recently said that international research reveals a child payment to be one of three key factors in reducing child poverty. He insisted that it needs to be universal, because “Programmes that are targeted to the poor tend to end up being poor programmes”. John Key’s response? He dismissed the idea as “dopey“.
5. Pass on child support payments to beneficiary solo parents rather than withholding it to offset their benefit.
6. Poverty reduction targets to make politicians accountable
Paula Bennett won’t even measure child poverty, and Bill English is following suit by refusing to set targets to reduce it. He reckons it’s meaningless to measure child poverty, because he thinks we only have ‘relative’ poverty, and that ‘relative’ poverty is not real poverty. Those are a couple of huge assumptions, which I’ll discuss in
my next blog a future blog, about the suggestion that there is no poverty in New Zealand.
Scorecard so far:
Vague and equivocal support, with a possibility of eventual action: 2.5/6
So, overall, it’s not looking good.
Particularly when we bear in mind that these are relatively conservative and non-partisan suggestions. That international welfare expert identified three key factors in reducing child poverty: increased parental employment and higher wages, along with the “dopey” universal child payment. The above recommendations are far gentler, and don’t require National to change their underlying philosophy at all – they could implement all of the above without having to actually create jobs or pay living wages.
Whatever they end up doing or not doing, this government’s response to child poverty will be one of its key legacies. It will also have a huge impact on thousands of young lives – for better or worse.
(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”.
I’ve been noticing an unusual phenomenon over the past few weeks – National MPs drawing attention to the plight of the poor, the greed of corporates and the illusory nature of private property. Are we living in an upside down world?
It all started when I found myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Paula Bennett on the plight of poor beneficiaries.
Bennett drew attention to “absolutely sub-standard” yet “well over priced” housing, and landlords taking advantage of vulnerable people who couldn’t find housing elsewhere. She asked such landlords to “have a good look at themselves”, provide housing they’d live in themselves, and show a good Kiwi “element of fairness”. She even said she was looking at ways of “helping people towards home ownership”.
The funniest part about the whole thing is that she was responding to comments by Annette King on the accommodation supplement… so we have Labour criticising the welfare state and National pointing the finger at the propertied elite.
Of course, Bennett’s rhetoric falls flat when we remember that her party is entirely sold out to an economic system and worldview where the propertied are the good guys, individual self-interest is the universal incentive, and any fairness or concern for others is an optional extra.
So in criticising a few ‘bad apples’ among landlords, she’s actually endorsing the ideal of a ‘good landlord’, charging fair rates to their poor tenants even while getting filthy rich off them.
And any vague attempts to “help people towards home ownership” will be upstream rowing at best so long as they rule out ever taxing the proceeds of owning other people’s homes.
A similar phenomenon happened the other day with Gerry Brownlee pointing the finger at private insurance companies for avoiding and delaying pay-outs in quake-hit Christchurch. Although risk management/status quo protection is something that “the private sector claims it can do so particularly well”, Brownlee points out that it’s failing to do so – in fact, EQC, of all Kafkaesque government bureaucracies, is doing far better.
But is he really doubting the National party line that everything is better when owned and operated by private profit-maximisers?
When we look at another instance where the private sector is failing Christchurch, housing, his response was considerably different: Let the market sort it out.
So what’s the difference? Well, firstly, as the minister in charge of EQC, Brownlee has a horse in the race. But it’s also interesting that in an insurance crisis, it’s the property owners that suffer, and he’s taking umbrage. But in the housing crisis, only the poor and ordinary people suffer, while the rental property owners prosper – and Brownlee can only see positives there.
The worst example of this phenomenon, of course, has been John Key’s recent refrain that “nobody owns water”.
Key’s arrogance has reached new heights in this casual dismissal of traditional, Treaty-enshrined Māori rights. Like a dog to its vomit, the Māori Party have returned to the fold after an assurance that National won’t legislate against Māori rights or claims – but you don’t need to legislate against something if you’re just going to use your legal prerogative to ignore it.
But Key’s use of the phrase “nobody owns water” to misrepresent Māori water claims is just as bad.
He’s portraying Māori as money-grabbing “opportunists” trying to take a vital natural resource away from ordinary New Zealanders, by referencing what we all instinctively know – that it’s wrong to be selfish and greedy, that nobody can really ‘own’ what belongs to everyone/nature/God, that property is ultimately theft because the world is everybody’s and nobody’s, etc etc.
But once again the reality belies the rhetoric when we see that he is using this line of thinking to dismiss Māori stewardship of public waterways, so that he can smoothly transfer hydro-electricity generation into the private hands of rich investors.
The fact is, the selfish opportunists are the very people National holds up as our role models, and the very people to whom they want to sell our power companies. Key affecting an opposition to private property is a joke. His party thinks everything should be private property – including water when it suits.
As Tim Selwyn put it, “Interesting how the Nats suddenly start espousing anarcho-socialism when Māori property rights are involved!”
In reality, as Tapu Misa eloquently explains, Māori rights surrounding water are far more in keeping with these anarcho-socialist ideals than the Pākehā/capitalist concept of private property. Māori “ownership” means caretaking and free public use of everything that National wants to carve up, commodify and sell to the highest bidder.
The consistent thread in all these stories is the way that National are co-opting quasi-socialist rhetoric to further their capitalist causes.
It’s hilarious, as well as worrying, that while the Labour leadership are still scared of sounding too much like a Labour party, even National can see the populist appeal in leftist language and the universals of fairness and co-operation it touches upon.
To paraphrase Slavoj Žižek, the only proper reply to such shrewd ideological manipulation is: “if you really believe in social justice and sharing the world, then why are you doing what you are doing?”
‘Nats soften emissions blow for businesses’ (03/07/2012, Fairfax)
Mr Key confirmed taxpayers would have to pick up the $80 million tab as a result of the reprieve for business and farmers announced yesterday, but insisted the measures would minimise the impact of the ETS on “households, exporters and employers”.
He said the transition measures initially introduced by National had halved the impact of the ETS on households and exporters compared with what Labour originally planned.
The Cabinet had now agreed that those transition measures needed to run for longer “given the fragile international economic environment and the minimal progress made by other countries to develop similar climate change tools”.
In its infinite wisdom, the government has decided that the economic environment is far too fragile to be worrying about the real environment.
Recognising its integral role in economic growth, the government will continue to subsidise pollution until further notice.
Obviously the other taxpayers (workers, consumers, smokers, children) and tax recipients are in a far better position to be able to pay for rich polluters’ pollution than the rich polluters themselves.
And I thought this government didn’t believe in compassion during a recession.