Monday, March 29, 2010

The Dream Is Over




It was only a matter of time before the National government started harassing beneficiaries in earnest. Every indication concerning Paula Bennett’s eventual portfolio since long before the election campaign - it was in 2004 that then-spokeswoman Katherine Rich charted the course that the party would follow - pointed to the resurrection of the zombie idea of a work for the dole-type scheme, the introduction of work tests, tighter controls on disability benefits and a time limit for the DPB, all based on the core belief that the ideal welfare system should be ‘a genuine safety net’ and not ‘a lifestyle choice’ (Key again, from the same speech). So you knew that it was only a matter of time, and that it would most likely come when National needed a distraction, something to take the heat off another policy, or a Minister fumbling with his figures.

Thus last week, right on cue, Paula Bennett called a press-conference in which she announced that she would start mining the nation’s unemployed to bolster the government’s reserves of political consensus. And since Bennett herself is a woman who spent time on the Domestic Purposes Benefit, her primary target were women on the Domestic Purposes Benefit. For she is a reformed single mother and unemployed person, you see? So she knows what it’s like to live a life of welfare dependency, and she reckons she knows just the way to help you out of it. Not through schemes like the Training Initiative Allowance, no. She scrapped that, as a matter of fact. What she has in mind is a lot closer to bullying. In fact the person who came up with the idea, American political scientist Lawrence Mead, didn’t even bother to search for an euphemism. ‘Helping and hassling’, he called it.

Here’s how it will work: approximately forty thousand mothers on the DPB whose youngest child is over the age of six will face part time work tests, which translates into having to engage in the employment-seeking activities mandated by Work and Income and turn up to job interviews scheduled on their behalf by their case managers. Failure to comply will result in the halving of the benefit. Everybody else on the dole will have to reapply once a year and go through a work assessment exercise. From May next year, sickness beneficiaries deemed able to work part time will also have to engage in mandatory employment-seeking activities, or risk facing even harsher penalties than DPB recipients: halving of the benefit following the first non-compliance, then suspension of the benefit, then cancellation of the benefit on the third strike. People on the invalid’s benefit deemed able to work part time will be moved on to the sickness benefit, with the attendant increase in the number and frequency of compulsory reviews.

Those are the contents of the proposed Welfare Reform Bill, but what’s missing is just as significant: work creation schemes, training programmes, childcare provisions - the Minister will have none of that. Bearing in mind that her portfolio covers employment as well as welfare, she intends to increase the roll of active jobseekers by 50,000 units without increasing the pool of available jobs. What this will achieve is ratchet up the competition for what little work is available - and for minimum-wage work in particular - by means of an influx of people who aren’t allowed to say no, and whose marginal salary in many cases, according to Treasury’s own calculations, will be as little as one dollar per hour. As a consequence, the capacity of the workforce to negotiate better wages or conditions for this kind of work - a capacity already weakened by the ongoing crisis - will take a further hit, which is good news for the Reserve Bank in its titanic struggle against inflation and the nightmare of a high-wage society.


Don Brash with Ruth Richardson in 1991.

What the policy will also achieve is to victimise women and their children, and further exacerbate the feminisation of poverty. In her analysis of the beginnings of the assault on single mothers on the DPB under the tenure of Ruth Richardson, Jane Kelsey writes:
The moral responsibility argument was aimed mainly at the domestic purposes beneficiary. The prevailing image was of a young woman who had deliberately got pregnant knowing she could bludge off the state for the next fifteen years. She was never the victim of rape and incest, or the beaten wife who had escaped with her life but had no means to support herself or her children on her own, or a mother who had been deserted and left to fend for herself. She was frequently assumed to be cheating not only the state, but those of her fellow citizens who were prepared to make sacrifices, pay their taxes and obey the rules. (Kelsey, 281)

I wonder sometimes if there’s enough of an appreciation of how this supposedly hard-nosed yet rational approach to welfare policy is tinged with a downright archaic moral conservatism: for isn’t it the case here that we are asking women and the poor to pay for the sins of our society? And the chief of these sins is the imperfect application of economic theory, the vast, measurable gap between neoliberal reforms and their stated goal of making society more prosperous and just, even, if not primarily, for the people at the bottom.

Most of the original proponents of these reforms under Labour have since migrated to ACT, as is well known, but I wasn’t aware until quite recently that the name of the party is an acronym for Association of Consumers and Taxpayers. A beneficiary, and especially a woman on the DPB, is neither of those things, insofar as their modest acts of consumption are made possible by the taxes paid by others, and their economic output is nil, even if they happen to raise children, look after elder members of their whanau or carry out volunteer work in their communities. Not possessing a taxable income - except to the extent that some of the benefits themselves are taxed - the beneficiary is a non-person, a ghost, but a ghost who must be periodically and ritualistically summoned in order to underscore a fundamental message: that government spending in general, and social spending in particular, are an unnecessary evil, the thing that stands between the country and the triumph of its new economic model.

These ideas appeared to have saturated the public conversation when I arrived in New Zealand, in late 1997. Christine Rankin was about to follow Lawrence Mead's script in the restructuring of Income Support, and ads such as this one polluted the airwaves.



Demonising welfare recipients wasn't a wholly new phenomenon - Reagan had blazed that particular trail in 1976 with his description of a ‘welfare queen’ largely of his own invention, and the myth of welfare fraud goes back in America to the early Sixties - but in post-war New Zealand, where successive governments had pursued full employment until as late as 1984, convincing people that the unemployed are a drag on society as opposed to its victims was always going to require a more concerted effort. Hence the need for state-sponsored propaganda through ad campaigns such as the one above. Yet it also seemed to me at the time that the nation’s psyche was singularly vulnerable to crude narratives of that nature, and that even without being able to tap into a history of resentment against the poor, those ideas could be grafted onto the body politic with surprising and dispiriting ease. Some years later, I found resonance in Bruce Jesson's description of New Zealand as 'a hollow society, a society without texture, a society without centres of resistance' (Jesson, 70).

Jesson's history of the decade of neoliberal reform in New Zealand in Only Their Purpose Is Mad includes a chapter entitled The State of Amnesia. Here he shows that abandoning the cornerstone policies of full employment and universal social participation that had been so integral the country’s development and sense of nationhood required both a sudden rupture - the financial crisis that Douglas and his colleagues found themselves in charge of as soon as they took office - and a self-serving reinvention of what the time before that rupture had been like. As an immigrant, I have heard those stories first-hand many times: New Zealand in the Muldoon era was backward and insular, the pubs closed at six o'clock, the food was universally bland; the verdict on politico-economic issues is less unanimous, but I’ve heard many left-wing moderates say that while the old system was admirably equitable, it was no longer affordable, and there was no alternative except radical reform. In fact, as Jesson himself, Easton, Kelsey and others have extensively argued, the New Zealand economy in 1984 wasn’t in a deep state of crisis, nor was extreme market liberalism the only way forward. But it seems to me that the history has quite successfully been rewritten not just for the benefit of the victors who carried the day - the Roger Douglases, Ruth Richardsons and Roger Kerrs of this world - but also of the moderate Left that, having returned from its well-deserved time in the wilderness, found it more expedient not to reverse those traumatic changes, but simply to alleviate them. We still don’t have a capital gains tax, or a levy on financial transactions. We still have GST. Critically, we still allow the Reserve Bank to manufacture unemployment in order to keep a lid on wages and control inflation on behalf of the wealthy.



Don Brash with Michael Cullen in 1999.

What the last few months have shown is that New Zealand society isn’t any less hollow today than it was before the nine years of Clark’s government; it has no more texture. It is a fairer society, and in some areas significantly so, but it lacks in institutional and organised civil society barriers between the rapid implementation of further reforms and its most vulnerable citizens, who are bound to bear their brunt. So when Mr Finlayson found the Welfare Reform Bill to be in breach of Bill of Rights Act, Ms Bennett and Mr Key were able to shrug off the non-binding advice of their own Attorney General. ‘Those changes are hugely popular,’ said Bennett. And that’s all that matters.

As was the case when I first arrived in the country, it was the language in which the policies were presented that I found most extraordinary, most foreign. Key described the measures as a welcome ‘kick in the pants’. Bennett, in describing the consequences of non compliance, said this:
‘If a real, demonstrable effort has been made, their benefit will be reinstated. If not, well, I'm afraid the dream is over.’

‘The dream is over.’ She let it roll of the tongue. Think about that. The dream? Does she have any idea…? Well, of course she does. She was a beneficiary herself, wasn’t she? And that’s when you realise how shrewdly she was chosen for the job, how important it is to have a woman with her background deliver those hits. One of us, one of them. Not a ghoulish technocrat like Douglas, or the heir to a political dynasty, like Richardson, yet a person fully capable of delivering lines of devastating cynicism against her former kind. ‘The dream is over’. And while we sit on the sidelines, fretting and organising around campaigns that are closer to the interests of the middle class - against mining in national parks, whaling, budget cuts at Radio New Zealand; all worthy causes in their own right - thinking that perhaps we are making society less hollow, more textured, the dream, or more precisely the memory, really does evaporate, of a caring society that knew how to look after its own.








Scoop has an excellent roundup of the proposed changes to the benefit entitlements and the reactions from various quarters. Read also In a Strange Land and No Right Turn (1, 2).

A brief bibliography on welfare and Rogernomics, as an antidote to the State of Amnesia:

Brian S. Roper. Prosperity for All? Economic, Social and Political Change in New Zealand since 1935. Southbank: Thomson, 2005.
Bruce Jesson. Only Their Purpose Is Mad. The Money Men Take Over NZ. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 1999.
Jane Kelsey. The New Zealand Experiment. A World Model for Structural Readjustment? Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995.
Brian Easton (ed.). The Making of Rogernomics. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1989.

In a Land of Plenty, dir. Alister Barry, New Zealand 2002.

49 comments:

Deborah said...

And while we sit on the sidelines, fretting and organising around campaigns that are closer to the interests of the middle class - against mining in national parks, whaling, budget cuts at Radio New Zealand; all worthy causes in their own right

This brought home to me the sheer cynicism of the timing of these announcements: keep the middle class occupied with the safe issues, and we can do what we like to beneficiaries.

Emanuele Ziglioli said...

Well, I don't know Giovanni...
a system that allows people to be on benefit for 20+ years is not perfect either.
In Porirua a couple of years ago, they were talking about two men who had to leave their state house because their mother, the tenant, had died.
Well, those two fellows "couldn't work", they were on benefit.
But yet they could talk to journalists and walk to Housing Corp. to complain.
Since I've been here I keep hearing about similar cases, like the guy that couldn't work due to an injury but then was caught painting his house and fishing.
The case of solo mothers is more delicate of course. But in the article you linked from Scoop they say "We will provide help, with more job-focused training. Childcare provisions will be targeted at those parents who most need it.".

Finally, I haven't read any of the books you mentioned (one day... I like reading) but it's a national leisure activity to rubbish the so-called roger-nomics.
Well, what I've got to know since I came here in '03 has been a country with the lowest rate of unemployment (that means work is not scarce) with a large middle class. If those reforms had negative effects well, they must have disappeared pretty quickly.
Shall we compare those reforms to Russia's industrialization scheme (did you see Sunday last night?)

merc said...

I bow in thanks for this post Gio, and for NRT's and for Deborah's. This is the lowest ebb in modern politics, the lowest, when they kick and starve our most vulnerable under the thin guise of progress.
It's not progress, it's f*cken Medieval and makes me swear, sorry. From now on everything I create is going to bear this one truth in mind.

Where love is absent, power quickly fills the vacuum.

che tibby said...

my main wonder is why they aren't insisting that *all* mothers whose youngest child is older than six are sent out to find work.

aren't these mothers also a drain on society? after all, what are the contributions they make that are any different to single parents supported by the fatherland?

merc said...

Tibby is back! (made me larf on my moniterzzzzz).
Make them 6 year olds work indeed, don't tell Honest John that, or Mizz Befitting Benefits...they will take your suggestion up in a Beehive minute.

Giovanni said...

@Emanuele

a system that allows people to be on benefit for 20+ years is not perfect either.

Define "perfect". Also, I think at sime time during the Muldoon era the unemployed benefit roll had falledn to something like twenty people. What has changed? Do you reckon that people have become lazy? Or was it the economy that changed? For how many people would you say that living on the unemployment benefit - which is set below our unofficial poverty line - is "a dream"? And if it's a dream, why did it not occur people to dream of it before the neoliberal reforms?

Since I've been here I keep hearing about similar cases, like the guy that couldn't work due to an injury but then was caught painting his house and fishing.

So are you saying that those who are unfit to work should live under the equivalent of house arrest? Never leave the house? Never go fishing? Never paint their own house?

How many unemployed people do you personally know? Do you know their circumstances? How many of them have mental health issues? Of all the people who suffer from depression that you know, how many of them suffer from it constantly, 24/7, and how many have protracted periods when yes, they can leave the house, and, *gasp*, yes, they can hold a paintbrush. Are you suggesting that the moment they feel better, they should rush to a job? What job? Where is this work on tap available for them, in the absence of old fashioned work schemes?

Finally, I haven't read any of the books you mentioned (one day... I like reading) but it's a national leisure activity to rubbish the so-called roger-nomics.

It may be a pastime to rubbish some aspects of it, but not half as many as I'd like to be rubbished.

Well, what I've got to know since I came here in '03 has been a country with the lowest rate of unemployment (that means work is not scarce) with a large middle class. If those reforms had negative effects well, they must have disappeared pretty quickly.

You came here at the top of the economic cycle midway through a period of social-democratic moderation of Rogernomics. You didn't come here in 1997, when the economy was in the doldrums in spite of 12 consecutive years of radical reforms. National at the time blamed the slothful unemployed, as if it was up to the unemployed to create work and raise the nation's productivity.

But, yeah, read those books. They are instructive. Full of facts and figures, too. (If I had to pick one, I'd say Jane Kelsey's. And Alister Barry's documentary In a Land of Plenty is just tremendous.)

Shall we compare those reforms to Russia's industrialization scheme (did you see Sunday last night?)

That's a typical gambit of the proponents of neoliberal reform - compare their own radical ideas to other radical ideas. There are in fact plenty of sane alternatives inspired by social democratic principles consistent with the nation's development and political compass, and that would have been applicable to New Zealand in 1984 and beyond. I've suggested some measure myself - a Tobin tax, capital gains, revisiting the Reserve Bank Act. They're not my ideas, nor are they the ideas of a cabal of Bolshevik economists.

Giovanni said...

@Che
my main wonder is why they aren't insisting that *all* mothers whose youngest child is older than six are sent out to find work.

I think our Attorney General has been wondering about that too.

Giovanni said...

A link on being wrongly found fit to work from Jake via Facebook, apropos of what Emanuele wrote also.

Anonymous said...

I hadn't realised you that you had only been here such as short time Giovanni
You have such a good handle on our culture
But as Emanuel Z says there is a problem with long-term beneficiaries
I think all of us know people who fit this category, often damaged but who don't or can't hold down a real job
Just a pity Labour did not tackle the problem when we had good times and it is interesting that they are keeping very quiet while their constituants are being attacked
Ray

Amanda said...

I find the tone of the debate completely offensive. A "kick in the pants"? More like a plan to bully, insult and kick sad, struggling fellow citizens when they are down. It also horrifies me that important policy decisions seem to be being made on the basis of pandering to the lowest common denominator talk back radio prejudice and ignorance. Maybe the welfare system does need some reform but I want to see research, empathy, compassion and respect for the human rights enshrined in our laws as key factors in the debate. The level of public discourse in this country is a national disgrace.

merc said...

Statistically the long termers don't worry me one jot. I much prefer they eat than starve to become pawns at the Bastille door.

Emanuele Ziglioli said...

@Gtiso
I've suggested some measure myself - a Tobin tax, capital gains, revisiting the Reserve Bank Act. They're not my ideas, nor are they the ideas of a cabal of Bolshevik economists.

Well, you guys have had plenty of time (9 years!). None of that has been done, rather: spending the little wealth we had in interest free student loans and socializing the railways, maintaining the intergenerational gap (middle age multihome owners vs homeless young couples), not sorting out the public health mess.

How many unemployed people do you personally know?

We've actually lived for 5 years next door to a state house, same shape as ours. We didn't have sky or a 3lt 4WD, yet next door they did.
We had to pay to get our house renovated when we moved in, they didn't have to. Instead they thrashed it so that more renovations were needed when they moved out.
We saw a string of young capable people leaving or hanging around that house. Somehow they always managed to figure as no income earners.

Let me ask you this: why, on the Kapiti Coast, we have to pay $58 for a doctor visit while in the wealthy Wlg southern suburbs you guys just pay $30?
Do we have to sponsor your possibly bigger mortgage repayments? :-)

Clark and co. have had plenty of time to fix some issues, if only hadn't been ideologically driven and so arrogant.
Definitely more than the actual labour-light government.

che tibby said...

@giovanni,

it's a serious point though. women who are "pre-DPB' are somehow sacroscant. but any woman who is single with children is more than an unwed mother, they are in effect characterised as a whore.

and emanuele, there are very few people who are on any benefit for more than a year. i think MSD has a page with stats you can download.

Giovanni said...

@Che
they are in effect characterised as a whore.

Leave out "in effect", it's exactly what Ruth Richardson said in 1988, while still in opposition. By her standard, Paula Bennett ought to have given up her child for adoption.

@Emanuele
Clark and co. have had plenty of time to fix some issues, if only hadn't been ideologically driven and so arrogant.

I'm with you on the fact that Labour ought to have done more, but since you appear to be in favour of the Right Wing approach I'm not sure you want to lay the blame with Clarke for not doing enough to undo those policies. Maybe I misunderstood you.

And to be clear, (also @Ray), I do think that so-called welfare dependency is a problem, and that long-term unemployment is a known incubator of social problems. But to blame the unemployed for the lack of jobs is insane.

(I think the current figures are that 84% of people are on the benefit for less than a year, by the way.)

Giovanni said...

(By the way I'm not suggesting it's you who was doing that, Ray!)

che tibby said...

and... under labour unemployment dropped to its lowest point in decades.

the trouble is, unemployment is a product of labrou market factors, not government policy, despite the many arguments to the contrary.

Russell Brown said...

Define "perfect". Also, I think at sime time during the Muldoon era the unemployed benefit roll had falledn to something like twenty people.

Gio, you're in danger of writing an imaginary history here.

Up until the late 60s -- and the beginning of the end of our beneficial export relationship with Britain -- yes, the number of registered unemployed was very law, in the hundreds or even dozens.

The rate began to rise in the 1970s, and from 1979 it jagged sharply upwards until 1984, when Muldoon was finally voted out, whereupon it fell then tripled to about 12% as a consequence of the reforms and the 1987 crisis, to which New Zealand was badly exposed.

Inflation hit 11% in 1971 and twice in the Muldoon years hit 18%. This was simply ruinous, and it makes no sense to claim that we were not in crisis by 1984. In the month before the 1984 election, the Reserve Bank actually closed our foreign exchange markets to try and stave off a currency crisis. We were fucked.

So some degree of reform was clearly necessary. Reasonable people could disagree on its extent, manner and timing, but, please, let's not pretend things weren't bad back then.

Giovanni said...

The Reserve Bank Act is government policy, though, isn't it? Insofar as the agreement is renewed every time a government comes into power, I mean. And the Act empowers the Governor of the bank - who answers to nobody, not even to his own board - to raise interest rates when unemployment falls below a certain level. So there is always going to be a certain number of unemployed (between 100 and 150 thousand, is it?), and there's not always going to be a churn, some of them will remain there long-term. They are our inflation safety-valve. Their function is to protect our property values.

Giovanni said...

(Sorry, the above was in response to Che.)

Russell Brown said...

But as Emanuel Z says there is a problem with long-term beneficiaries

Not much of a one, really. At the end of 2008 only 1.3% of unemployment beneficiaries had been registered unemployed for two years or more.

I think all of us know people who fit this category, often damaged but who don't or can't hold down a real job
Just a pity Labour did not tackle the problem when we had good times


We had one of lowest unemployment rates in the world. How much more do you think they should have done?

che tibby said...

giovanni, a book to add to your reading:

"James, Colin. New Territory: The Transformation of New Zealand 1984-1992. Bridget Williams Books, Wellington, 1992"

still needing to read it clsoely myself... but by all accounts it's a reasonable history of the need to change. liek RB says, in 84 NZl was effectively bankrupt. muldoon was not so great as a finance minister.

Emanuele Ziglioli said...

Last comment of the day (a promise to myself)

@Giovanni
I'm with you on the fact that Labour ought to have done more, but since you appear to be in favour of the Right Wing approach I'm not sure you want to lay the blame with Clarke for not doing enough to undo those policies. Maybe I misunderstood you.

I hope I'll always have the freedom to decide who to go with on a case by case basis.
I'm just pointing out that as a labour government their reforms have achieved mixed results at best.
Take for example kiwisaver: who takes advantage of this tax cut?
More likely the better off. Who pays for it? everyone.

It's easy to find examples of unfairness. Another one: who pays for sport activities of the wealthy? revenue from the gambling machines!

Have they fought corruption? well, the cases of Ann Marie Thompson and Taito Philip Fields have shown a system with a few cracks.

Regrets, regrets.
A change of governent is a good thing, regardless.

Amanda said...

@Ray Labour don't necessarily see beneficiaries are their constituents. I remember a few years ago Michael Cullen said words to the effect that historically Labour has stood for working people hence they were fine with the fact Working for Families discriminates against the children of beneficiaries.

merc said...

Gio is right, we let them chuck money at the peasant problem as long as the monied get breaks...inflation is good for property profit gains bad for savings.

Russell Brown said...

muldoon was not so great as a finance minister.

That, sir, is putting it mildly. The wage and price freezes of 1982-84 (which would presumably have been indefinite if Labour hadn't won the 1984 election) were the stuff of crackpotism.

Russell Brown said...

Take for example kiwisaver: who takes advantage of this tax cut?
More likely the better off. Who pays for it? everyone.


Well, in the long term, we all benefit if our miserable rate of saving improves. Apart from anything else, we stand a better chance of owning our own assets. That was the keynote to Cullen's approach, truth be known.

Giovanni said...

I'm all for compulsory or heavily incentivised savings schemes, me.

@Russell
Gio, you're in danger of writing an imaginary history here.

Up until the late 60s -- and the beginning of the end of our beneficial export relationship with Britain -- yes, the number of registered unemployed was very law, in the hundreds or even dozens.


My point with that wasn't to claim that we ought to go back to whatever it is we were doing back when we had a handful of unemployed people. Leave aside where the jobs come from for a moment: where were the slothful, the bludgers who lived the dream, when we had full employment? That was my point there.

Inflation hit 11% in 1971 and twice in the Muldoon years hit 18%. This was simply ruinous, and it makes no sense to claim that we were not in crisis by 1984.

Nobody is saying that there was no need for economic reform. Certainly not Kelsey, Easton or Jesson, nor the union economists interviewed by Barry in his film. There is however a lot of debate on the particular crisis that Douglas used as a springboard. There are those who say that it could have been stemmed very simply by devaluing the dollar.

As for the reforms that took place, even economic conservatives admit now that they didn't need to be so traumatic and so extreme. Brash said so himself in the 2025 Taskforce report. And of course they could have been reforms of a very different nature, as progressive economists have suggested.

As for our bad exposure to the 1987 stockmarket crash, it's quite demonstrably a direct consequence of the fact that we let the financial markets run riot in the previous three years.

Russell Brown said...

As for the reforms that took place, even economic conservatives admit now that they didn't need to be so traumatic and so extreme. Brash said so himself in the 2025 Taskforce report. And of course they could have been reforms of a very different nature, as progressive economists have suggested.

No disagreement from me there. I just took issue with the idea that we weren't in deep crisis by 1984. And I don't regard Kelsey's economic analyses as coherent.

che tibby said...

My point with that wasn't to claim that we ought to go back to whatever it is we were doing back when we had a handful of unemployed people.

which was, if i recall correctly, heavy foreign lending, huge subsidises on exports, huge tariffs on exports.

you'll recognise the heavy lending bit from the high employment period we now call the global financial crisis...

Giovanni said...

It wasn't economic protectionism that led to the current mess, it was the deregulation of financial markets. Surely we can all agree on that.

che tibby said...

yes, deregulation was a bad and stupid thing. 100% agreed.

but regarding dependency and unemployment, i think the real issue is as you state the demonisation of those out of work, or providing on their own.

the fact is that these people are necessary to make late modern capitalism work, but they are villified for that. why unemployment isn't seen as an opportunity is a mystery to me, and a telling sign of middle-class sanctimony.

what i mean is that if i am a businessman then a pool of unemployed is a significant resource, and a reason to start a business. it means i can pay people to make me money, upskill them to make me even more, and without them i am solely reliant on my own labour.

instead, we focus on capital accumulation as the sole virtue, to the detriment of distributing this wealth via wages.

hence, single mothers can't afford to work.

you can call it a structural problem (to be addressed by policy), but it really smells more like a cultural issue of smugness and a perception of relative worth to society.

Giovanni said...

I think it's both of those things, yes. And I'd like to compare the rhetoric concerning prisoners and the unemployed, I suspect we'd find that they overlap quite significantly. An example at the seemingly more benign end of the scale: we express outrage when prisoners are allowed televisions; we express resentment if an unemployed person is seen out fishing.

che tibby said...

also, i think the fishing one might be an ACC meme. there is actually a fairly serious issue with ACC fraud. people will claim 80% of their salary and time off, but still be performing functions that would permit them to return to work.

if they're unemployed then fishing is more likely to be a method of keeping food on table...

Ben Wilson said...

Nice post, Gio. Bennett's playbook has to be called for what it is, a harsh assault on a lot of people sorely in need, justified by a much smaller number who can be cherry-picked as exemplary system rorters.

I know some people like that, but most of the people I know who are on various benefits are not like that, and are usually either seeking employment pretty damned diligently, or are actually genuinely unable to work due to injuries or mental health issues. It's already a pretty hard life, with the constant hassling from case workers, the insulting exploitative offers for casual labour, the sneering from the employed, and the extremely tight budget that leaves them constantly exposed to life's minor disasters. It's a very depressing life, easy to see how it can form a trap, as the only people you can associate with on anything resembling common ground are the people in the same situation, so the pool of acquaintances moves away from the employed to this ... underclass, I guess.

Ben Wilson said...

A good example just came to mind, a guy I do Aikido with who is on some kind of sickness benefit. He's also a painter, but I think on a very casual basis.

You might think that because he can paint, and do Aikido, then really he isn't shouldn't be considered an invalid, and could work instead of collecting a benefit.

But I've laid my hands on this guy any number of times, and it's abundantly clear to me that there's definitely something very wrong with his body. His invalidity stems from a stroke he had a number years ago. At face value he's a strong, able man. But constantly I discover that his body does not really respond the way his mind wants it to, particularly when put under stress (as happens in martial arts all the time). He falls awkwardly, even after years of training, he seizes up, stiffens, trips, etc.

He only paints because he really needs the money, and he likes to work. But he's the first to admit that he really shouldn't be doing it, that one day he's going to fall off a ladder or down some stairs, and his life will be much worse off.

It's a real bind to be caught in. Of course moving around and trying to do things is a major part of physical recovery. So he tries to keep active with his casual work, his martial art, and going fishing (so that he can afford to eat fish), and other such things. But he should NOT be forced to work. It's his call if he's up to it on any given day, so he only takes clients who can deal with this unreliability. If he had to paint all day long, not only would he be driven past endurance very quickly, but most likely he would have a shocking accident because of that.

Then he'd be on ACC taking much more money, would not be giving anyone the benefit of his work, and his own life would be a misery.

A good society does not force people into these straits without dire need. Just because you see someone trying to live their life with a positive attitude does not mean you know the whole back story about why it is that they claim a benefit.

MollyByGolly said...

"And the Act empowers the Governor of the bank - who answers to nobody, not even to his own board - to raise interest rates when unemployment falls below a certain level. So there is always going to be a certain number of unemployed (between 100 and 150 thousand, is it?)"

Gio, the Act says the governor should keep inflation down, not unemployment up. He uses the OCR (interest rates) as a mjor tool to do try to achieve his goals. The RBA does not say anything about unemployment.

In the short term there is, however, some link between inflation rates and unemployment. In the long term there isn't (because people adjust their behaviour according to their inflation expectations).

Giovanni said...

The RBA does not say anything about unemployment.

Not explicitly, no. And there is no official unemployment target as such - the 100k estimate comes from labour union economist Peter Harris (interviewed by Alister Barry in In a Land of Plenty), but every account of Rogernomics not written by Roger Douglas I have come across, as well as every discussion of the current monetarist regime, has made the connection between the raising of interest rates at the top of an economic cycle and ensuring a cushion of unemployed to maintain competition for jobs and a downward pressure on wages.

MollyByGolly said...

Yeah, it's called taking the heat out of the economy.

My point was a technical one: the RBA and the Governor do not react in any direct way to the level of unemployment.

I haven't seen Peter Harris' data - I'm sure it is good - but the relationship between unemployment and inflation is not always a direct negative one (one must be high to keep the other low). Witness the 1970s stagflation when the impossible happened - inflation and unemployment climbing at the same time.

merc said...

Great comment thanks Ben. /reminds self not to take Ben on in fight.../

Giovanni said...

Yeah, it's called taking the heat out of the economy.

I love a good euphemism, I really do, but isn't the end result what I described? And if that's true, doesn't it mean that we have replaced our long-standing policy of full employment with a policy of enforced unemployment? And furthermore, if that is also true, and we are prepared to live with it because it's the soundest economic policy we know (I'm not saying that's the case, but let's say it is), doesn't it mean we ought to look after our unemployed - seeing as they are a precious tool for keeping inflation down - and ensure they have the same access to a decent standard of living and meaningful social participation as the rest of us?

merc said...

Plus they pay tax and vote! And along with GST giving a clear view of payments and receipts the Govt (tm) have very great economical control...

Steve said...

"the nightmare of a high-wage society."
Does that mean we aren't going to catch up with Australia? I'm confused now.

Anonymous said...

“…how important it is to have a woman with her background deliver those hits. One of us, one of them.”

She is far from the first to willingly take up such a role. It was a black American legislator (Wayne Bryant) who in 1991 sponsored a controversial welfare reform in New Jersey that has since spread to other states (the “family cap”). This discriminatory policy, which denies benefits to welfare mothers who have additional children, has had its greatest impact on poor black women.

http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/orgs/jlg/vol291/smith.pdf

Ironically, Bryant is currently serving a four-year sentence for fraudulently collecting salaries from several different public jobs. He’s known as “the king of double-dipping”.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wayne_R._Bryant

Giovanni said...

At the time of that ad I posted in the blog TVNZ showed a 'documentary' called Time Bomb in which they looked at the experience in another US state - was it Wisconsin? - where Mead's theories had been applied in earnest. It was part of that propaganda campaign to convince us that it was the way to go.

Espiner the other day prodded Bennett on whether we're going to let people just fall out of the system and she replied that it wouldn't happen because people would simply comply and be immediately readmitted. She's either imagining that the coercion would work perfectly and seamlessly in every single case, or reluctant to admit that we're creating a new class of citizen, those for whom there is no welfare.

George said...

The culture of disdain against beneficiaries is not new, and has been a constant feature of New Zealand politics from all sides of Parliament for the last 20 years (the left-wing sections of the Greens and Alliance being notable exceptions).

Labour actively and deliberately discriminated against beneficiaries for 9 years, especially the unemployed. They play a huge part in creating the discursive space which allows National to conduct these acts without significant fear.

Lyndon said...

Delayed poem for you (actually sparked, if anything, by your earlier status updates).

The middle one, as I imagine you'll work out:

http://werewolf.co.nz/2010/04/from-the-hood-boraxing-poetical/

Giovanni said...

I am delighted and frankly a little moved.

rob said...

Thanks Gio.
A lot of crap in one bucket from teh govt in one month. I'm dreading the budget. Somehow I think there will be nasty little-fish-hooks.

harvestbird said...

North Beach was for when you had nothing
save the dunes that protected the houses from the worst of the wind.
The women were breadwinners, by and large;
they did knitting, or mending, or took in boarders.
What the boarders did
came out in memoirs much later;
suffice to say
it was neither Christian nor kind.

The men stayed and worked, or came and went,
the children knew a little of what they didn't have.
There was a density of churches
and prayer, no doubt, too;
polite conversation, in lieu of gossip
effaced the density of suffering.

Some of the children grew up to the middle class,
a different kind of walking wounded
from their peers, the war veterans.
It wasn't just the men who had things
not to talk about.
Their hurt stayed silent for years
then broke out in retirement:
depression, confession, the ranks of the evangelicals
brought back bad angels for good people
who'd assumed, somewhere, the fault was their own.

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