Sunday, February 23, 2003

"Privatisation" or punishment?

I've just been reading about John Tamihere's call for privatising welfare at the Knowledge Wave conference.

His chief suggestion is that "all state benefits for each household should be paid through non-government case managers", who would pay essential bills like rent and power, buy basic food items, and send anything left over to the beneficiaries bank account to be used for discretionary spending.

"Welfare as presently practised in this country literally kills us with kindness," he said.

"It hands out enough to get you through until your next handout. There are no mutual responsibilities. Recipients are denied a sense of worth and equality."

I can think of no better way of denying people a sense of worth and equality than having some bureaucrat buy their food for them on the basis that they can't be trusted to buy it themselves. While this will certainly stop beneficiaries from "frittering away their money on lotto and cigarettes", it will also allow free reign for the case-managers prejudices on every purchasing decision. Do they really need chocolate biscuits when they could have BasicsTM gingernuts - or no biscuits at all? What about double-ply toilet paper vs single-ply? Is shampoo - or female sanitary products - really an essential item, or is it a "luxury" that they "really can't afford"? And why should they be living in that clean house in a reasonable suburb when there's a rat-infested fleapit well away from public transport available for twenty bucks a week less?

Giving case-managers that sort of power over people is a recipe for dehumanisation, arrogance, and bigotry. As if WINZ wasn't bad enough already.

Still, he's got it half right: part of the problem is that welfare "hands out enough to get you through until your next handout" - and only enough to get you through until your next handout, with no safety margin for emergencies or even replacements. The problem beneficiaries face is not poor money management skills (there's nothing like being actually poor to teach you the value of good budgeting), but enormous barriers to getting out of the trap. Finding a job - printing CVs, postage, interview clothes, child care, transport - costs money, which WINZ doesn't provide; actually getting one is a tremendous risk, since you face another stand-down period if it falls through. And in today's insecure labour market, dominated increasingly by casual contracts with 24-hour notice provisions, these risks are simply too great.

Tamihere is right, in that our welfare system needs reform, but it certainly doesn't need the "reform" he's suggesting. We don't need more authoritarianism from bureaucrats - we need more flexibility to cope with part-time and casual work, easier access to "special needs" grants, and a complete turnaround in the attitudes of case-managers (if you've ever dealt with WINZ you'll know what I mean). Tamihere's plan is simply punishing beneficiaries, not helping them.

As for the "privatisation" aspect, I'll let the idea of replacing an intrusive government bureaucracy with an even more intrusive non-government bureaucracy with a requirement to make a profit speak for itself.