Monday, August 09, 2010

Here we go again

If public service cuts, mass-unemployment, and health cuts weren't enough to convince you National was taking us back to the 90's, they've moved on to the next component in their recipe: beneficiary-bashing. Their right-wing "Welfare Working Group" has dutifully reported back that the welfare system is "unsustainable", complete with a scare figure of $50 billion to manufacture a sense of crisis to drive "reform". But delving into their extremely shallow working papers, their big findings seem to be:

  • the welfare system has become more generous since the 1960's, when we dumped sick people on their relatives and left solo parents destitute;
  • people are likely to stay on the unemployment benefit for longer at the moment due to the lack of jobs;
  • people with longer-term problems (such as solo parents, those with long-term illnesses, and those with permanent disabilities) tend to stay on benefits for longer;
  • people who are unable to work don't get pushed into it by WINZ;
  • people who spend long periods of time on benefits are poorer (but because benefit adequacy was excluded from their terms of reference, they can't talk about why that might be).
For most of us, these "discoveries" are so obvious and banal as to cause us to question how much these "experts" were paid (or indeed, why they were paid at all). For the Welfare Working Group, however, it is apparently a reason to dismantle the entire welfare system and replace it with an insurance-based model which will deliver less, and leave more people in poverty.

I guess the government got what it paid for then. But the rest of us should demand a better justification for such radical changes affecting so many people than the usual right-wing kneejerk of "benefit bad! Poor lazy!"

Meanwhile, if the government is serious about reducing the welfare bill, here's a few suggestions:

  • If the government is concerned about too many people on the unemployment benefit, it could do something to create jobs, rather than simply expecting them to magically appear if it makes people desperate enough;
  • If the government is concerned about too many people on the sickness benefit, it could ensure they get treated for their conditions, rather than left to rot. Sickness benefit numbers represent a failure of our public health system, not of the sick;
  • If the government is concerned specifically about the number of people receiving the sickness benefit due to mental health or addiction issues, it could reduce inequality. These problems are strongly correlated with inequality (and for good reason), and more equal societies have less of them.
  • If the government is concerned about solo parents not working, it could provide better access to childcare and further education, rather than cutting both.
But somehow, I suspect the government will do none of these things. They would rather demonise the poor and grind their faces further into the mud than actually do anything to help. Partly this is because they look at the problem in isolation - its a welfare issue, not a jobs issue, a health issue, an equality issue, a childcare issue. But a large part of it is because they are the nasty party, the party of "I've got mine, and fuck the rest of you"s who do not give a shit about the poor and lack the imagination to even consider that they could need these services one day (its particularly revolting in the case of John Key and Paula Bennett, who seem to have purposefully forgotten, except for propaganda purposes, their time as beneficiaries of our welfare state).

Caring for the poor, the sick and the old, making sure that no-one starves and everyone has a roof over their heads are basic requirements of a decent society, and things we kiwis expect our government to do. If National follows through with this plan, it will be a major departure from that expectation. The only way they're going to be able to do it is by stripping us of our ability to imagine (or in many cases, remember) ourselves in those circumstances, through a government propaganda campaign to further demonise the poor. Which means that Paula Bennett's talk of the welfare debate "getting ugly" wasn't a concern, but a threat.