Welfare carrots and sticks

By Jane Clifton In Politics

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10th March, 2012 Leave a Comment

Paula Bennett: tricky position, photo Janna Dixon/NZH

Mothers and babies might look benign, but politicians, officials and assorted do-gooders approach at their peril, because the lioness can attack you from pretty much any angle. It doesn’t matter if you’re only trying to help. We’ve seen the uprising of the avenging mums after the Piri Weepu bottle-feeding furore – which exposed a disturbingly group-speak underbelly to antenatal education classes, in which bottle-feeding is tacitly closed for discussion. And a well-meaning Helen Clark caused lingering offence when she sought to empower mothers to get out to work; stay-at-home mums detected a slight on their life choices.

Now this Government is gamely sailing into the mother-and-child vortex, waving new welfare carrots and sticks with the aim of getting young single mothers out of the welfare trap. Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei meant well, too, as she railed in a quavery voice against the forced “abandonment” of babies. Her argument was that mothers forced out to work would consign their infants to almost certain peril. Could John Key guarantee, she demanded to know, that “not one single child!” would suffer under this new policy? It was as if baby-neglecters were queuing around the block to take advantage of this new opportunity.

After a few rounds of this, John Key could take it no longer, and pointed out that she was implicitly condemning as irresponsible and uncaring thousands of mothers who voluntarily place their infants in day care so they can work. Turei was indeed on a dark continuum, by implication tarring as unreliable the various carers, from professional and community crèches and preschools to friends and family. And in a wider arc, those parents who struggle and juggle, while beneficiaries who might work but opt not to are also entitled to take offence.

It’s hard to think of a more viscerally touchy subject, though. Increasingly, research suggests that for many, possibly most children, the best start is with a near-full-time mum for the first few years. Financially, this is an idyll beyond the reach of many parents. Equally, there are parents whose souls would wither if they could not work as well as parent; on balance, that is best for their children. And decades after the dawn of feminism, we are still counting the cost of women’s interrupted career paths and lower incomes.

It’s hard for policy-makers to venture into this territory without effectively making value judgments favourable to one or other side of the argument. In the olden days, administrations had it easier: impecunious families were put into the workhouse, kids and all, so at least there was no question of abandonment.

This administration being a right-wing one, anything it does in the welfare area will be popularly portrayed as a rerun of Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend: people socially, if not physically, imprisoned in places not of their choosing, or forced to grub around in the dirt for jobs that don’t exist. Anecdotal evidence tends to trump that statistical evidence of reasonable job growth in the economy: for any job-seeker who is low-skilled, ageing or qualified but inexperienced, it’s tough even getting an interview, whatever the Household Labour Force Survey says.

Equally confounding for those newly faced with finding a job is the little-acknowledged fact that governments – with the exception of totalitarian regimes – do not actually create the jobs they want us to have. This Government is going full-tilt in the opposite direction, axing jobs in the state sector. It rather opens itself up to the question: if you predicate your welfare policies on insisting beneficiaries be work-ready, where is the damned work they’re supposed to be ready for?

In the end, welfare tightening, however well-intentioned, always comes down to effective case-management. The last umpteen welfare reforms have ordained that all beneficiaries be work-ready, and unable to refuse reasonable job or training options. The fact that successive governments have to keep reiterating this condition as if it was brand-new suggests it’s an impossible thing to enforce. Try, for example, wandering into a gang headquarters or a shanty in the far north to ascertain compliance with work-readiness and suggest a catering or word-processing course and see how far you get.

However, an important, and strangely untrumpeted, aspect of these reforms is the plan to ring-fence much of the assistance to teen parents, so that rent and power bills are paid directly, and the rest is stored on a debit card limited to approved purchases. It sounds mean, but it’s a step toward the much-admired Scandinavian practice of targeting as much of the benefit as possible toward the child, and limiting the potential for what policy officials like to call “moral hazard”. What down-at-heel teen wouldn’t be tempted to spend part of their benefit money on fun things? How responsible were any of us at this age? Young people will, again, feel unfairly picked on, but there are even younger and more vulnerable people – their babies – to prioritise here.

The Government has urgent work to do further up the chain, as illustrated by the case of the single mother denied a Tertiary Assistance Grant because her preferred training option was too advanced. The 2009 restriction of the TAG to lower-value qualifications was a matter of rationing, but by now it’s pretty clear it was a short-sighted cut. It’s crazy that you can get more state support to train for hairdressing than for nursing. The system is supposed to help people to raise their sights.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett is in a tricky position here: the support she received through tertiary training materially improved her prospects in life and now she’s closing off some of that same assistance for others. The other rather obvious problem is the scarcity of apprenticeships for teens. If ever there was a chance for a Government to intervene in the job market, it’s the pending Canterbury building boom.

Another great under-resourced career path is in psychology. Exhibit A is the extraordinary pathology of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who soared to office on a tsunami of public and collegial goodwill, only to squander his capital within a year by being beastly to people. Amateur shrinks on both sides of the Tasman have had great fun essaying a diagnosis: narcissistic personality disorder, psychopathic lack of empathy, anger management issues or, less scientifically, being a complete tosser.

Rudd certainly seems to have suffered from some of the same delusions as former Act leader Don Brash. Both shot to prominence rapidly and became serious players because of rather than despite their homely looks. Both mistook celebrity for portable political capital; they genuinely believed that their massive popularity would naturally translate into votes.

The pathetic reality is that it’s hard to distinguish between rock-star celebrity, curiosity value and the more specific admiration that empowers political leaders. And private behaviour also counts. Though Brash was unfailingly courteous to colleagues, his blinkered leadership style infuriated his colleagues just as Rudd’s molten rudeness drove his to mutiny.

Exhibit B: Labour leader David Shearer, still mulishly refusing to take the fight to National on traditional bare-knuckle terms. “I am what I am,” he keeps saying rather lamely, without benefit of the bulging spinach-fed forearms to ballast the message. His promised scene-setting speeches are still a week or two away, and will doubtless show there is lead in the pencil after all. But meanwhile, it remains fascinating to watch both opponents and commentators grapple with a politician who refuses to play politics. The sheer, daring novelty of an MP who thinks issues alone will carry him! What fresh manner of personality disorder is this? Peter Dunne Syndrome? Clark Kent With No Phone Booth Disorder?

My pick: it’s a cunning mutation of the naughty-child syndrome known as Oppositional Defiant Disorder – Oppositional Compliant Disorder. There’s no known medication, but all the same, he should watch for impatient colleagues slipping stuff into his coffee.

More by Jane Clifton

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