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People Making Changes Issue 27 -
The Real Face of Poverty in
New Zealand - Part II

Dorothy - 2/10/97

Will proposed changes to benefits BENEFIT beneficiaries? Is the real problem dependency or poverty?

Two Conferences look at the situation of beneficiaries and benefits in New Zealand, one emphasising dependency and possible patterns for change, the other looking at the real face of poverty in this country. You will probably want to read Part 1 if you have not already...

Unfounded generalisations
"It's a family thing. If the parents are beneficiaries the children won't try to get a job either." "Look at all those women staying home on the DPB for years and years and not trying to get a job." "People oughtn't to be dependent. They are bone lazy. They should get cracking and support themselves."

With the screening of the programme, "Time Bomb", dealing with the social welfare system in New Zealand, the situation of beneficiaries has become a frequent topic of conversation here. I have been increasingly worried by the number of unfounded generalisations like the above gaining credence and the unbalanced media coverage given to the topic of dependency.

Inter-generational dependency
Let's look at the first statement. No New Zealand statistics are available on inter-generational dependency, but a national survey of 13,000 households in America showed that only five per cent of all longer term welfare recipients had been brought up by parents who were on benefits long term.

These five per cent may very likely have been disadvantaged by the limited income of their parents which would probably have meant less education and therefore fewer of the skills required in the job market.

Women on the Domestic Purposes Benefit
Now to the second statement - about women on the DPB. Recent figures showed that the average length of time women stay on this benefit is three and half years. This is often time spent by the mother and children recovering from an unhappy or abusive relationship and restoring the family's confidence to establish a new life pattern. Many of the women use the time training or updating earlier skills to re-enter the workforce.

Dependency affects us all.
Dependency is something which is part of the life of almost everyone. We depend on our parents, partners, families or friends for support - be it emotional or financial dependence or day to day practical support, we are dependent. The person who made the comment about people needing to be independent was herself dependent on the Guaranteed Retirement Income paid by the government.

The cost of benefits and the will to work
I well realise that the payments to beneficiaries are a heavy drain on the government's revenue. I am also aware that most beneficiaries are craving for employment. The present level of benefits means that most beneficiaries are living in poverty. Being blamed as the cause of a time bomb hanging over society and criticised for not being in paid work when there are so few jobs available makes their lot even more difficult.

Concern over the problem - TWO CONFERENCES
Staff in government departments and local bodies, politicians, and community workers right through the country have become increasingly concerned about the present situation. Their concern led to the organisation of two conferences held in mid-March.

BEYOND DEPENDENCY
This conference was organised by the Social Policy Agency of the Department of Social Welfare and held in the Sheraton Hotel, Auckland, with a registration fee of $1475-$1675. 462 people attended, mainly pakeha aged over thirty. The largest group of participants came from the New Zealand public sector.

The theme of the conference was that the main problem confronting the welfare system is dependency, and changes needed to be made to the system to make people more self-reliant.

The programme was highly structured with only two brief question sessions each day. The rest of the time was taken up with addresses from speakers mainly from overseas.

Wisconsin Works
Jean Rogers from Wisconsin Works explained the philosophy and the system that had been developed in Wisconsin to reduce welfare dependency. A 33% drop in case loads suggested that the scheme was a success, but there had been no significant evaluation of the programme, so it was not clear what was happening to the people who had given up the benefit.

During the process of becoming self-sufficient Ms Rogers explained that people moved through up to four levels of employment:

W-2 Transition - rehabilitation training for those who were ill or disabled and those who were caring for someone ill or disabled

Community Service Jobs - each week 30 hours employment and ten hours education without a wage but with a benefit paid

Trial jobs - subsidised employment with at least the minimum wage

Unsubsidised employment - with people given assistance to find work.

In the view of Wisconsin Works no one is entitled to welfare. Everyone who can work must work. Mothers must be in paid work by the time the baby is twelve weeks old. Childcare is provided by the state to make this possible.

Care of the children is the responsibility of both parents. Non-custodial parents who owe child support must pay their dues or instead do unpaid community service for sixteen weeks or go to jail.

Speakers from California
James Riccio who has specialised in studying the effects of work-related programmes said that these helped families to work instead of depending on welfare, but the families' income changed very little. They often found it difficult to stay in work as many jobs were temporary.

Eloise Anderson who is director of the California Department of Social Services said that an increasing number of people in the U.S. believed in the principle of "no work, no eat".

She believed that job searches were more important than further training for those who had not succeeded at school. Families should be cared for by both parents even if they were separated and grandparents should play a part in childcare. She admitted that the New Zealand situation was very different from the American.

The System in Ireland - generous benefits and a strong economy
In contrast Cyril Havelin described the Irish system of welfare, available from the cradle to the grave. Ireland has a strong economy, although there is 12% unemployment. There is social consensus and wage agreements have been set for the next ten years. Lists of those registered as unemployed are checked and the doctors employed by the government check on people on sickness benefits. There is no pressure on solo parents to be in the workforce. There is encouragement to find work and educational opportunities and temporary community work with inbuilt training are offered. For those who have been unemployed for more than twelve months there is a three-year back-to-work allowance which is a great encouragement for people who want to be self-employed.

The Irish government currently spends 34.7% of GDP on welfare, slightly more than New Zealand. It is possible because of the strong economy and the social consensus.

Reforms promised in the U.K.
The Labour Government has promised to put 250,000 welfare recipients to work. In particular the focus is on single mothers. All single mothers with children over four were to look for work or undertake training.

It has also indicated that it will withdraw welfare payments to the long-term jobless and the young unemployed if they do not take up new training opportunities.

The situation in Australia
Don Edgar stressed the strength of family networks in Australia, but expressed concern about the way in which the current systems were causing the situation of the aged to deteriorate. People were not encouraged to use their abilities and their was little flexibility in the system to suit the differing needs and capacity of the aged. He believed that family policy needed to reinstated as central to future planning.

Bettina Cass disliked the term 'dependency' as it implied that beneficiaries were responsible for their own situation. What was needed, she said, was 'a circuit breaker" of high quality and appropriate training, apprenticeships and employment experience.

New Zealand speakers
Many of those who attended felt that there was far too high a proportion of overseas speakers.

The Maori viewpoint
Maori comments on the conference highlight the use of Maori culture in the powhiri, but the slight emphasis on the Maori initiatives to help their people. Bulk funding of iwi has been suggested and received a lot of support.

The Maori view is that giving people involvement in the development of change means that are motivated to take part in work schemes. The American standover tactics like those used in Wisconsin will not heal social divisions.

The view of Pacific Islanders
Pacific Islanders tend to live in the present rather than putting aside money for hard times. When they have money they help those who are in difficulties and then they are helped when the situation changes.

Again they like to have a voice in decision making rather than doing as a government department tells them without consultation.

The disabled
Little time was given to the situation of disabled people although they are a large group needing support from benefits. There is a strong desire from them to have work opportunities where they can use their talents to benefit the community.

BEYOND POVERTY
This conference, also held in March, looked at poverty and unemployment and ways to create a just society where everyone has a decent standard of living, can participate and is valued.

The registration fee varied from $10 to $80 according to participants' ability to pay. It was organised by community groups. The speakers were almost all New Zealanders, including researchers and community workers. Most of those attending were community representatives, mainly pakeha.

There were keynote addresses, and smaller seminars and workshops.

250 people took part and 100 had to be turned away because of lack of space.

Dependency?
Statistics show that most people use the benefit as a safely net, not a permanence. Life on the benefit is too uncomfortable for many people to want to stay that way.

Viewed in proportion to the population there has been little increase in dependency.

Sue Bradford's views
Sue Bradford, unemployed workers' rights activist, says that work at any cost is not the answer. Unemployed people do not gain self-esteem by being forced to work for their benefit. "Making work compulsory is not different from sentencing people to periodic detention, except that we have committed no crime and do not have the benefit of judge or jury in appealing our sentence."

She believes that the Government has used conferences like Beyond Dependency to make the public accept new reform without debate.

'Good work'
Katherine Peet, president of the Federation of Workers Educational Institutes, stressed the importance of 'good work' - in the community, caring for the environment, looking after children and the elderly, supporting schools, the visual and performing arts.... Much of it goes unrecognised, and little of the work is paid.

Government policies dependent on people's 'good work'
Increasingly the government is depending on the community to carry the burden of care in the community. Much of this is done by those who are termed unemployed because of the lack of recognition for anything the does not command a salary. Most of the 'good workers' are women. The government is using the goodwill of 'good workers' to withdraw funding from the community.

The poverty line
This varies from city to city because of the cost of housing, which is the biggest cause of poverty. Research establishing this minimal costs for living indicate that one in five New Zealanders lives in poverty and one in three children. The poverty was greater among Maori and Pacific Island families, but Pakeha/European households make up two thirds of all poor households.

Universal Basic Income
One suggestion to overcome poverty is that a universal basic income be paid to everyone and all would have the freedom to earn as much extra as they could without restrictions.

The problem of poverty is grave. The solutions need to be varied because the root causes are varied

Read the next article in this series, on the
Time Bomb documentary



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