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People Making Changes Issue 28 -
The Time Bomb Documentary

Dorothy - 16/10/97

Why was $300,000 of public money allocated to this programme?
When it was first proposed by Communicado in 1995 it was refused funding by New Zealand on Air. After a strong protest letter from Neil Roberts, at that time working with Communicado, NZOA granted $300,000 as funding and TVNZ assisted with the use of its facilities. Once funding has been granted NZOA does not interfere with the content of programmes.

"Time Bomb"
This title suggests that time is ticking away until a great explosion of discontent from beneficiaries or from those whose taxes pay for the cost of benefits. Judy Rymer, the director of the programme defends the title by saying that change is inevitable and the title indicates the urgency of the situation.

The purpose of the programme
Annette King, Labour spokesperson on social welfare called the programme "a hatchet job on the welfare state .... a scandalous misuse of public money for partisan propaganda". (Judy Rymer stated on National Radio that at the time when she made the statement Annette King had not seen the programme.)

When interviewed by Kim Hill on National Radio Judy Rymer was adamant that the programme was not propaganda produced to promote any group's political agenda and that there was no link with the Department of Social Welfare except as a provider of information.

She declared its purpose to be the presentation of ideas about the current welfare system, leaving New Zealanders to discuss the topic among themselves. She was attempting to set the first round for debate as she believes that there is insufficient discussion on television and in the Press about what she described as 'a terribly serious issue for New Zealanders to face as we move towards the twenty first century'.

She certainly achieved part of her aim in that there has been a lot of discussion aroused by the programme, but much of that discussion has been about the apparent imbalance in the presentation, rather than about the topic of change in the welfare system.

Organisation of the programme
Part 1 of the programme deals with the current situation and the views of a number of beneficiaries and others with strong views on the topic. Part 2 deals with a different approach to social welfare, particularly that being tried in Wisconsin, U.S.A.

Some of the criticisms
Gordon Campbell in New Zealand Listener.

In 'Welfare's fallout", a very interesting, well-researched and challenging review of the programme that appeared in New Zealand Listener on 26 July 1997, Gordon Campbell commented on the imbalance in the expression of viewpoints among the fifty people who appeared on the programme. They included beneficiaries, welfare providers, economists, comedians and commentators. Seven speakers of right wing sympathies included Sir Roger Douglas, Alan Gibbs, and Lindsay Perigo who expresses strong libertarian views. The only left wing view was expressed in a very brief message from Ken Douglas, whose political sympathies were emphasised for those who recognised it by the portrait of the first Labour Prime Minister, Michael Savage, in the background.

Kim Hill in an interview with Judy Rymer on National Radio
Kim Hill commented on the use of a strange lens whenever beneficiaries were speaking. Rymer explained that this was to differentiate between comment by those who had not experienced life on the benefit and those who were speaking from their own experience. The result of this filming technique was to make the beneficiaries' lives seem drab, even grim. Rymer felt that this was not inappropriate as the lives of people on the benefit were uncomfortable.

This was not the view of life on a benefit portrayed by a number of those making comments which implied that people chose to live on a benefit and have a number of children as a soft option.

Brian Edwards on 'Top o' the morning'
Brian commented that in this programme those who regularly worked to assist people on the benefit came across as passionate about the situation, and also realistic in their comments which were backed up by firsthand experience. The followers of Rogernomics talked in generalisations and only theorised.

My own impressions
In my view it consisted of a number of snippets which contributed to the picture of the doom that hangs over New Zealand without developing the ideas or supporting the generalisations.

Some social workers and educators expressed their concern about the difficulties experienced by beneficiaries. There were glimpses of life on the benefit, mainly from a young solo mother who had experienced violence and hardship from her teenage years and a young man who had played truant through his brief time at secondary school.

Facts about the Domestic Purposes Benefit
Where were the women in their thirties who are using the Domestic Purposes Benefit as a stop gap between leaving a difficult, often abusive, relationship and retraining and returning to the workforce? The programme implied that the majority of people on the DPB were teenage mothers, and that they were likely to be dependent on the benefit for many years.

The statistics show that:
31% of people on the DPB are off the benefit within three years.
The number of teenage mothers on the DPB is declining and represents a small minority of recipients.
The number of women in their thirties on the DPB is increasing, now 55% of recipients, but most are on the benefit for a limited time.

This is at odds with the statement that those on the benefit are going to be "poor forever".

Reduction in numbers of the long-term unemployed
There is little recognition of the success of the present programmes in getting the long-term unemployed back into the work force. The number of those unemployed for more than two years has been reduced by over 60% since 1993.

The impact on children
The message of the programme is that welfare is damaging and Sir Roger Douglas claims that "5% of families are dysfunctional".

When I discussed this issue with Dr Jane Higgins in the Sociology Department at the University of Canterbury she pointed out the following:

Department of Social Welfare research (in the Dec. 1996 edition of their journal, the Social Policy Journal of NZ) found that:

(i) 59% of those who are the subject of the Children and Young Persons Service notifications are the children of beneficiaries.

(ii) this represents less than 6% of the total number of children of beneficiaries.

(iii) there is no simple causal connection between belonging to a family in receipt of a benefit and coming to the attention of CYPS.

In other words, the study did not find evidence to suggest that children of beneficiaries are more likely to come to the attention of CYPS because they are children of beneficiaries.

Talk of a large population of children growing up in welfare dependent homes can be misleading if it ignores the fact that most families in receipt of a benefit do not remain on that benefit for extended periods. These children are not spending their childhoods in welfare dependent families but in families which, for a period, are in receipt of a benefit, and then move off that benefit and back to the workforce. In other words, it is not, for the most part, the same children year after year who are'welfare dependent'.

Statistics need to be checked
Statistics regarding benefit dependence were delivered in a voice of doom by Ian Watkin sitting in a high rise office building, and on one occasion peeping over the top of his computer. A number of these statements have been challenged. For instance "A quarter of New Zealand's population is on the benefit." It is nearer one tenth of the population or one fifth of the working population.

Judy Rymer defends the use of only one overseas organisation in Part 2 on the grounds of cost .
The portrayal of what has happened in Wisconsin opened with the American national anthem and a description of this great back-to-work programme delivered in what appeared to be the legislative chamber of the state.

The stories of the transformation in their lives came mainly from solo mothers given the chance of education and childcare for their children.

The Seattle Times, September 1
An article headed 'As of now, everybody works in Wisconsin', marked the date when the full programme of change in Wisconsin came into effect. All able-bodied adults work or undergo work training in return for a cheque, food stamps, medical assistance and subsidised child care. There is a five year limit on benefits.

The first change was Learnfare ten years ago, a scheme under which parents had reduced benefits if their children did not attend school. The paper quotes the State Governor, Tommy Thompson, saying on 3 August 1995, "There will be no more welfare offices, no more welfare checks, no more welfare families. It's going to be the most remarkable and visionary plan in the country."

The new programmes have reduced the welfare caseload by 62%, from 100.000 to 38.000 families. "Families are working. They're living the American dream," said the Governor.

Not everyone shares his view. A banner outside the office of an advocacy group for beneficiaries has counted the days - "25 DAYS TO GO! Slavery starts Sept 1. Stop W-2." (W-2 is described in The Real Face of Poverty in New Zealand - Part II.)

Charity groups which offer food and shelters for the homeless are expecting an increase in families asking for help.

The State welfare workers have to take a personal interest in their clients and assist them to overcome obstacles to their being employed full time. Where there are genuine difficulties the benefit may be extended for a transition period.

The Cost of the Scheme
The high start-up costs of job training and child care subsidies will mean that the state will spend US$629.7 million next year - $178 million more than in the last year of traditional welfare - a 39 percent increase.

Portrayal in 'Time Bomb' - a rosy view
No mention was made of the current economic prosperity of the state of Wisconsin which means that jobs there are more plentiful than here.

The difficulties of providing greatly increased child care facilities were not mentioned. It would be virtually impossible to provide licensed day care centres meeting the present New Zealand criteria without a period for training extra staff.

There is a bi-partisan approach to the reforms in Wisconsin. Without consensus on the introduction of the reforms they could not be carried through. Agreement among New Zealand political parties on what should be done regarding welfare certainly does not exist at the moment.

Discussion points
Judy Rymer was anxious that the programme should stimulate discussion about the issue of the welfare state. Let us discuss some of the issues which were not touched on in the documentary :

- the reasons for the loss of jobs
- the population changes
- the value of changes in payment suggested by ACT this week
- the veiled threat of the introduction in New Zealand of a programme like Wisconsin's Learnfare
- the effect on the labour market of Wisconsin's
programme of flooding the market with unskilled workers
- the fate of the Wisconsin workers if the present buoyant level of the economy declines
- the increasing pressure on voluntary agencies in New Zealand and Wisconsin as the government reduces its support of those in difficulties.

Recent speech by Roger Sowry, New Zealand Minister of Social Welfare
Roger Sowry said yesterday that a new code of social responsibility would be in place early next year and would provide the foundation for the Government's policy development - and that the responsibility for solving society's ills should lie with every one of us. Exactly what this implies may become clear in 1998. The new code, he said, was aimed mainly at parents who did not care for their children properly. He stated earlier that punitive measures like the removal of benefits from such parents was not envisaged.

Tony Blair, British Prime Minister, gives his view.
Let us watch with care what is happening outside New Zealand. Tony Blair at the recent conference of the British Labour Party spoke of 'compassion with a hard edge' and 'hard choices' - clearly referring to the changes to the welfare system which he has already suggested.

The last word over to Judy Rymer
Talking to Kim Hill she said:
"There is going to be change and it's important that this is the very best that we as a community can bring to it. To canvas all the options I would need ten more hours."

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