Simon Collins on welfare reforms

June 30th, 2012 at 1:19 pm by David Farrar

Two good articles by Simon Collins on welfare reforms. While not always agreeing with them, I almost always find his articles well researched and fair.

The first article is here.

Tough welfare reforms now going through Parliament may deter some women from seeing the sole parent benefit as a viable lifestyle – but at the risk of long-term harm to their children.

As with almost all policies, there is a trade-off. The reforms should deter some women from having multiple children while remaining on the DPB, but they may cause some hardship for some families. I don’t think the status quo was working or acceptable, so support the reforms.

Now she is pregnant again to a man she met only once.

“It was just a silly thing one night, I got drunk one night in town,” she says. “I was alone by myself that weekend, Antonio had gone to his family. I decided to go into Auckland City with friends and they showed me a whole life that I didn’t know.”

She considered an abortion but rejected it: “It’s a Maori belief, it’s a gift from God.”

A good example of the problem with the status quo.

New Zealand has among the world’s highest rates of sole parenthood, especially among low-income groups for whom the DPB may seem a viable lifestyle option. In the 2006 census, 25 per cent of all New Zealand children and 43 per cent of Maori children lived in sole parent families, compared with an OECD average of 16 per cent.

Otara administrator Delaney Papua, who turns 20 next month and is expecting her first baby in November, says going on the benefit seems to be just what you do when you get pregnant.

“All the people that I know that have kids go on it, so I kind of just assumed that you have to be on that,” she says.

And again, the challenge to break those expectations.

Another woman, Renee, became pregnant with a flatmate while on the benefit when her first two children were 8 and 5, and says it “was never a boyfriend/girlfriend thing”. She also thinks the new law is “fair”.

“If the law had been in place, I just would have been probably more cautious,” she says.

At another McDonald’s recently, she overheard two young mothers with babies talking about how they were trying to get pregnant again.

“I’m loving this benefit shit,” one said. “I’m going to have another baby, I’ll keep having them, it’s free money.”

And that is a very bad reason to have a baby.

In the second article, Collins reports:

A single-parent support group says some women are being driven to abort their babies because they are scared of the Government’s new hardline welfare laws.

Which is why free contraception is a good idea. Contraception is far preferable to abortion.

Julie Whitehouse, of the Auckland Single Parents Trust, says other mothers are going “underground” and trying to hide their babies from authorities rather than go back to work one year after giving birth.

This is a weird and illogical statement. Hiding your baby means you get no reprieve at all from work testing, rather than a one year reprieve. It also means they get no additional DPB. I suspect Ms Whitehouse doesn’t know what she is talking about – or her comments have not been communicated well.

Interviews with solo mothers who have become pregnant again while on welfare have found that most plan to respond to the new law as the Government intends – by taking more care not to get pregnant again, and by agreeing to look for work after a year if they do have another baby.

Excellent. The best outcome is taking more care not to get pregnant.

Simon Collins on Bennett

November 3rd, 2009 at 9:42 am by David Farrar

Simon Collins reviews Paula Bennett’s first year:

If John Key’s Cabinet picks a year ago were bets on the Melbourne Cup, then giving a critical job to Paula Bennett was a gamble on a complete outsider.

A year later, in political terms, the bet has paid out handsomely. Despite her official Cabinet rank of 16th, voters in Saturday’s Herald/DigiPoll survey placed Ms Bennett third in the most-effective-minister race after Mr Key himself and his deputy, Bill English.

Without taking anything away from Paula, I would note that the way that question was asked unprompted, means it is more a poll on name recognition. A better approach would have been to read out the names of various Ministers and ask them to rate how effective each is. That is not to say, the result would necessarily be different.

Her public popularity stems from the very qualities that made her a wildcard – the teenage solo mum, soon revealed to have a daughter who was a young mum herself with a jailed partner. Not the kind of privileged pedigree that arouses resentment.

She broke up a fight in Henderson in January, put Christine Rankin on the Families Commission in May, and hit back at two women who criticised restrictions on the training allowance in July by releasing details of their personal welfare files.

The last two of these were divisive. But they all made her look like a down-to-earth “bad girl” who plays tough and dirty when she has to. She is strong and sometimes wrong, but she is “one of us”.

Not a bad summary. Labour used to target her a lot in the House as someone they thought would be “weak”. She gets left alone a lot now.

She quickly implemented her party’s promise of short-term help for redundant workers. She gave social service agencies a surprise pre-Budget $40 million boost to cope with the recession. She played a key role in an August youth package which brought back job subsidies for young people.

Apart from the recession, Ms Bennett has said that she went away at Christmas and thought, “How do I want to measure myself at the end of this period of my career?” She thought about our appalling child abuse statistics and decided her test should be “that I made a positive difference for children”.

That’s a question more MPs should ask – what do they want to have achieved at the end of their time in Parliament.

She “started talking to as many people as I could” – people like Dr Patrick Kelly at the Starship hospital. In September, she delivered much of the experts’ agenda: a pilot project and an advertising campaign on not shaking babies, another pilot to intervene when domestic violence occurs in families with infants under 2, more social workers at hospitals, and multi-agency plans for abused children leaving hospital. …

Driving such initiatives is not easy. Ms Bennett’s Labour predecessors talked about a “single core benefit” for nine years but never managed to implement it. On this count, she deserves an above-average mark as an effective minister.

People (including myself sometimes) often complain about a lack of action from the Government. One senior Minister the other day put to me that the Government was doing just as much as any of its predecessors – it just wasn’t pissing people off doing it, and making big headlines.

Over the summer break I might try to compile how many laws and policies have been implemented, and how significant they are.

All these initiatives also help to chip away at Mr Key’s growing “underclass”. The job subsidies, too, flag an unstated recognition that the last National Government’s strategy of bludgeoning the unemployed into work by cutting benefits actually fuelled multi-generational dysfunction.

This time round, there is more emphasis on opportunities than on penalties.

Yet in all this chipping around the edges, there has not yet been a full frontal attack on what Mr Key described in his 2007 underclass speech as the “exclusion” of many from mainstream working society. At last count 5 per cent of working-age non-Maori women, and 22 per cent of working-age Maori women, were on the domestic purposes benefit alone.

A frontal attack on exclusion requires hard thinking about how taxes and welfare rules drive young couples apart and then trap parents on benefits.

Goodness. Simon Collins is a former editor of City Voice (great Wellington urban newspaper while it lasted) whose politics were pretty clearly on the left. If Simon is talking about the need to change tax and welfare incentives that trap parents on benefits, you know there is a mood for change. Not change is a brutal penalising way, but change in a way to break the cycle of exclusion.

It requires across-portfolio policies such as regearing education to produce tradespeople as well as academics, lifting low-end wages, making home ownership affordable, and providing accessible parenting and life-skills advice through places young parents go such as schools, preschools and doctors.

Ms Bennett has yet to rise to the challenge of using her Social Development Ministry’s policy grunt to lead this assault across the Government. For that reason, she has to be marked down in terms of ministerial effectiveness to just above average – 6 out of 10.

Certainly a cross-sector approach is needed.

The oldies

October 2nd, 2008 at 8:46 am by David Farrar

Simon Collins reports today on views amongst older NZers, as part of his ongoing series of 600 interviews.

The country’s northernmost publicans have not seen a National Party leader to admire since Sir Robert Muldoon lost power 24 years ago.

Rob’s Mob lives on!

“I didn’t like Don Brash any better. I liked Muldoon back in his day. You need someone strong in those parties. Helen Clark is strong, but she’s led by the Green Party.”

This will be news to the Greens!

But they are concerned about hospital waiting lists. As 65-year-old Trish Brett of New Plymouth put it: “There’s something wrong when people can win $5-6 million in Lotto and on the other side of things people are dying because they’re not getting the proper care.”

This is one of those weird statements. Lotto is nto funded by the Government. Far from it – Lotto raises money for the Government. I call it a stupidity tax 🙂

The Peters affair is driving away some former Labour voters, such as New Plymouth school hostel matron Kay Death, 52.

“I’m thinking of not voting,” she says. “I can’t be bothered with them.”

Former Labour-voting Foxton housewife Betty Cole, about 60, says: “After this Winston Peters debacle it’s definitely time for a change. I hope National will bring stability.”

Good good.

Reaction to Benefits Policy

August 12th, 2008 at 7:47 am by David Farrar

A wide range of reactions to National’s Benefits Policy. Taking them in no particular order.

Bll Ralston displys his outraged liberal roots and agrees with Helen Clark that it is beating up on single parents:

Frankly, less than 4000 adhering to the government breast on a more or less permanent basis is extremely few. In an effort to eradicate these last few bludgers, as it sees them, National will spend many millions of dollars in bureaucratic terms policing its new “back to work” system, counselling the DPB recipients and ensuring they really are making a buck for themselves.

Colin Espiner blogged yesterday and calls it Don-lite – watered down from Don Brash, but still different from Labour. He concludes:

There will be the usual objections from beneficiary advocates but National’s welfare policy won’t lose it any votes and may even pick up a few. It will be interesting to see how Labour responds. My pick is it won’t have too much to say.

Simon Collins has a useful look at the party differences:

It [Labour] believes the welfare state exists to empower those who would be powerless without it. For sole parents, the domestic purposes benefit gives them the power to leave unhappy or abusive relationships, and to balance paid work and unpaid parenting in the ratio that suits them and their children.

In contrast National, as John Key put it yesterday, believes in “a genuine safety net in times of need”. It thinks people should be moved on as quickly as possible.

I don’t think National in beliefs or policy encourages people to stay in abusive relationships. The DPB still exists. The difference is, having once moved out, whether or not one is forced to seek work at some stage, or can you stay on it for a decade without ever seeking a part-time job? But Collins is right the views are seen as “empowerment” vs “safety net”.

As his [Key’s] policy pointed out, New Zealand’s refusal to work-test sole parents is now out of line with all Western countries except Australia, Britain and Ireland, all of which have signalled moves to start work-testing.

Yes, as with the 90 day trial period policy, this is standard practice in the developed world.

Collins also has quotes from various advocacy groups:

Family First director Bob McCoskrie, an invited guest at the policy launch, said making parents work part-time made sense, but only if implemented with discretion.

“We’d want to make sure that the work requirements are within school hours and not within the school holidays. Otherwise we are going to have a lot of unsupervised kids.”

Case Managers will need some discretion.

Another guest, Mercy Mission founder Barbara Stone, said she agreed with the work requirement “as long as it’s in school time and there is someone at home for the children for the rest of the time”. She said it was hard to get jobs for sole parents, who often had low self-esteem.

The focus should be on work during school hours only. But a part-time initial job may boost the self-esteem and confidence so that a full or near full-time job is easier to obtain once the kid or kids are older. Having a total break from the workforce for 10 years makes it much harder.

Housing Lobby spokeswoman Sue Henry said she was upset that John Key had “regurgitated” the work requirement policy that National implemented in the 1990s. “Quite frankly, latch-key kids and youth gangs and transience are a direct byproduct of taking the stick to beneficiary families [in the 1990s],” she said.

Yes there were no gangs before the 1990s. What a sensible contribution.

But Parenting Council chairwoman Lesley Max said the requirement for sole parents to work 15 hours a week was “consistent with the norm that exists across society as a whole”.

And who would argue with Lesley?

John Armstrong looks at the policy also:

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue – a much paler blue in the case of National’s bits-and-pieces patchwork welfare policy.

Heh that could apply to many National policies!

The latest policy is archetypal John Key. It promises things Labour would happily do itself – such as making the annual inflation-related adjustment of benefit rates a legal obligation on governments, rather than just convention.

Yet in forcing part-time work obligations on some sickness beneficiaries the policy has enough to be identifiably National in origin. But not so much that it frightens centre-ground voters.

Labour and the Greens ritually slammed the policy as an attack on beneficiaries. Some in National’s ranks must think “if only”.

As I said, a sensible combination of carrot and stick.

The Herald editorial is reasonably negative on the policy:

It [solo mothers breeding to get the DPB] is probably as much a myth as the Labour Party’s idea of the average employer. That is to say, there are instances of benefit abuse just as there are rogue employers, but to treat the whole beneficiary class as though they are avoiding paid work would be as foolish as legislating labour arrangements for all. Nevertheless, that is what National proposes to do with sole parents, invalids and sickness beneficiaries.

It is an interesting analogy, but somewhat flawed. Not all sole parents, invalids or sickness beneficiaries are being work tested. Only those DPB recipients whose children are aged over six, and only that small minority of invalids or sickness beneficiaries who have been medically assessed as capable of part-time work. The editorial concedes this later down, so the rhetoric of “treat the whole beneficiary class as though they are avoiding paid work” is somewhat hyperbolic.

For sickness beneficiaries the policy seems fair enough. As the economy has strengthened and the unemployed have faced more stringent job-seeking requirements, the numbers on sickness and invalids benefits have risen suspiciously high. They have needed only a doctor’s note, and even if the doctor assesses them to be capable of part-time work, they have been under no obligation to seek it. National intends to change that.

Some praise amongst the grumpiness.

But there will be cases where the time and cost of taking a low-paid job put added stress on a sole-parent family for little if any financial gain. It is doubtful that society gains from that stress, or that it is worth the trouble the ministry might take to enforce it.

Single mothers with good earning capacity are normally anxious to return to paid work as soon as child care allows. National’s efforts will be felt mainly by those with few skills and poor earning capacity and, frankly, Mr Key ought to have more important things to do. This policy does more to stroke the shibboleths of party supporters than meet any pressing social need. He should return to topics that count.

The policy is pretty standard in the developed world. And having an extra 30,000 or so people in the workforce will help close the gap with Australia.