The National Government’s Social Security Amendment (Benefit Categories and Work Focus) Bill is now before the Social Services Select Committee. The first part of the bill focuses on youth and sole parents, while the second is about merging the benefit categories, increasing work expectations and introduces a number of new obligations for people who receive benefits.
I’ve seen a large amount of mainstream media coverage on the reforms, as well as a large amount of protest across social media. There are some areas of the bill that make good sense…in theory. It seems sensible to merge the benefit categories into the simplified Jobseeker Support, Sole Parent Support and Supported Living Payment (which replaces the older and hideously named Invalids Benefit).
However other changes are a tad more disturbing. These include a complete forfeit of any benefit for 13 weeks if you turn down “suitable work” as well as benefit cuts for parents who fail to enrol the children in early childcare, or don’t register their children with a GP. It’s very clear from these kinds of requirements that National thinks all people who receive government support are bludgers who are too lazy to find jobs and are probably bad parents as well.
The idea of these reforms are to get more people off benefits and into work. However, simply hitting people with a stick and saying “take this job, or else!” isn’t actually going to do anything towards creating an economy where suitable jobs exist.
Forcing skilled workers like engineers or lawyers into minimum wage jobs doesn’t benefit them or the economy. Nor does the reverse situation, where we need more skilled workers in certain areas (like Psychologists) but National cuts all student allowances for people who undertake graduate study, making it nearly impossible for people to complete the required training.
Paula Bennett, Minister for Social Development and Employment, points out that it would cost $78 billion dollars to keep everyone on a benefit for their entire lives. Ironically, this was revealed via a million dollar actuarial valuation from the Australian company Taylor Fry. (Let’s not mention the fact that this million dollars could have gone back into the New Zealand economy via a New Zealand based company…)
However, the vast majority of people don’t stay on welfare for a lifetime. The issues behind those who do are more complex than just a lack of willingness to work. Lack of skills and training, mental illness, health and social problems and physical impairments are the drivers – as is a lack of willingness of employers to be flexible around such issues.
Is any of this going to create more jobs, or make employers more likely to offer people employment?
What is needed is a system of support that accepts the reality of the workplace and current economy and helps people to improve their prospects, in a way that doesn’t undermine their self-respect. What is not needed is a bunch of reforms that make life even more difficult for those who are already the most vulnerable in society, in the mistaken belief that if they can’t find a job they have only themselves to blame.