Welfare checks and photo ops.
If there’s one thing the mob loves more than keeping Māori in their place, more than getting tough on the gangs, maybe even more than tax cuts. It’s a good old round of beneficiary bashing.
Are those meanies in the ACT party stealing your votes because they think David Seymour is tougher than you? That’s pretty feeble dude. But no worries, just roll out another singalong of that familiar tune “Bash the Bennie”.
Yesterday the National Party announced a traffic light system for dealing to, sorry, dealing with, those on welfare. You might remember they favoured such a system during Covid, although that plan only had a green light.
National's social development spokeswoman Louise “Bennie Basher” Upston made the announcement with leader Christopher Luxon, on a strawberry farm in Kumeu. Presumably so that Christopher could have another ice cream photo opportunity.
Don’t forget kiddies, it’s all Ice Cream under National, Labour want you to eat broccoli. To be fair National’s announcement was less like a strawberry soft serve and more like overcooked Brussel Sprouts. Adored by a few sickos but loathed by any* decent human.
*Can I just say this was said for comedic effect, I do know some of you love the sprouts, and are barely evil at all in other regards. So please don’t feel obliged to send me a letter about this 😀.
National's Jobseeker benefit traffic light system
Green (compliant) – Meeting obligations to prepare for or find work. No change to benefit
Orange (some risk) – First or second breach of obligations to prepare for or find work will see additional requirements and targeted support applied, e.g. more regular check-ins and/or attendance at job workshops
Red (high risk) – A third breach of obligations will result in sanctions including benefit reductions, benefit suspension, money management and mandatory community work experience.
Seems like a lot of administration to me, for what I imagine will be little real gain.
In light of National’s planned cuts to the public sector RNZ asked Upston if all this checking of people would require more staff at the MSD? She replied “No”. I guess additional work requirements under a National government won’t just be for the unemployed.
Apparently current staff, minus any job losses required to fund tax cuts, will manage having people reapply for their benefits every six months, providing job coaching, regularly checking documented proof of job applications and interview attendance, and imposing benefit suspensions. All on top of their existing workload.
I forecast staff turnover at the MSD might trend upwards, unlike morale.
One of the journalists asked “Do you have any evidence that sanctions shift that dial to get people back to work?” Luxon replied “I think they will.”
You’d have to say Luxon is at least consistent. Taking the same approach here as he has with other failed policies of the past, like boot camps for teenagers, and just saying it’ll all magically work this time, pay no attention to the evidence, or track record.
Prime Minister Hipkins said “Harsher sanctions don't work. National's plan today would simply result in more people living in poverty because that's what happened last time.”
Labour posted - “We’re focused on supporting people into work, not sanctioning them.”
Marama Davidson, who looked sickened by the announcement, said it was “continuing some of the cruellest, harshest, laziest politics that the National Party are continuing to push out there.”
According to those working on the front line the “National Party’s policy to take money off beneficiaries for infringements – without any evidence such policies help people into work sooner – will put even more families into destitution and could drive up suicides, homelessness, and survival crime.”
Christopher Luxon said “We care about these people. We love these people, we want them to flourish and we actually need to make sure they're clear about the obligations.”
Look, I get it, you can see some gain in giving beneficiaries a bashing, it’s hardly something new for your party. I can remember Ruth Richardson gleefully announcing welfare cuts, or Paula Bennett pulling the ladder up behind her, cancelling programmes to lift people out of welfare that she herself had been advantaged by.
We get it. But could you save us the fake, puritanical, tough-love crap, and pretending that you’re seeking to redeem these people, and not just punish them?
Never mind the fact that we literally have the highest number of people in employment in the country’s history! Given that so many people are employed you’d have to say the timing of this announcement was somewhat questionable, other than as a way to stop National losing votes to ACT.
The “Employment Rate in New Zealand averaged 63.22 percent from 1986 until 2023, reaching an all time high of 69.50 percent in the first quarter of 2023 and a record low of 56.40 percent in the fourth quarter of 1991.”
Incidentally, that government in 1991, when we reached our lowest level of employment, had Ruth Richardson as Finance Minister - the person that Nicola Willis seems to most want to emulate.
So I can only assume the announcement was for the following two reasons, neither of which have anything to do with welfare numbers.
Supporters enjoy seeing those at the bottom get a kicking, they want to see them punished. I don’t mean every right wing supporter, but clearly enough for National to roll this out again.
They want to force people into jobs that they wouldn’t otherwise take.
People are doing it tough they’re working hard to provide for their families and they’re sick of that mythical cartoon beneficiary, the one who spends their welfare cheque on Sky TV, beer, and ciggies, and pokies. You know the ones, they send their kids to school hungry, and without shoes, then they sit around playing video games and waiting for the next cheque to arrive.
There are people out there that see those on welfare through that Garrick Tremain lense. Don’t get me wrong there probably are a few examples who do rort the system but they would be a tiny minority compared to those who are in genuine need.
The reality of being unemployed is not spending it up on beers and lotto tickets. It’s struggling to live on what is left, if anything is left, after the most meagre basics. People that have lots of options do not select this as a lifestyle choice.
The way we see people is pretty fundamental to who we are. Do we generally think the best of people? That most people are decent human beings doing their best and that a few bad apples shouldn’t determine how we treat the majority. Or do we generally distrust people, by default thinking the worst, and make them jump through hoops to get the support they need.
You see this sort of thing in the workplace. The manager who trusts and empowers people, who manages things by exception. As opposed to the one who micromanages everything, who wants constant reviews and ratings of employees to measure their effectiveness.
There seems to be an appetite from those on the right to rate the worthiness of beneficiaries, even if constantly checking on them costs far more to administer than any resulting reduction in the welfare bill.
Ten days ago in an interview with ACT’s David Seymour, Jack Tame pointed out that last year 4,000 benefit cases were investigated for fraud, of those just 33 resulted in criminal prosecutions. We spent $50 million investigating benefit fraud in that period and found total over payments of only $2.3 million.
That’s an exceptionally poor rate of return. It would be like you putting $100,000 into Kiwisaver and then after a year your provider telling you there was only $4,600 left! On the other hand the IRD pursues a billion dollars in tax evasion a year, and it’s estimated that the true total is seven times that!
David indicated he had no plan to increase efforts to crackdown on tax fraud. I’ll leave readers to speculate as to why that might be. He did however say he would “ensure only [beneficiaries] genuinely unable to work remain on sickness benefits”. What a guy. Would you like Dr Seymour deciding whether people on sickness benefits are fit to work?
Again, I’m sure there are some cases where people are ripping off the system, but let’s not cause immense stress to those who aren’t “fit to work”, by presuming they are.
If you look at National’s welfare monitoring measures, David’s get out of bed and work brigade, not to mention Winston Peters’ new service checking that only the right people use a bathroom - the Privates Investigators. Then the would-be new government seem to be planning on hiring a whole lot more public servants than their job cut plans would suggest.
Winston Peters also got in on the Bennie bashing by saying his policy would limit any individual to a maximum time of two years on the Jobseeker benefit, what we used to call the dole, across their lifetime. Saying the following:
“If for any reason they need more financial assistance they will be expected to work in the community for their wage…New Zealand is never going to fill employment vacancies, or work our way out of our country's debt, unless there is a seismic change in the attitude of particularly young people to engage in work.”
For reasons of location, or age, or a number of factors, there will be some for whom finding meaningful employment is not possible. Efforts to force these people into situations, some of which may make them worse off, will cost more than it brings in. I’m not sure the long term unemployed are quite the economic powerhouse that Winston imagines.
Forcing people into employment is the other driver for National that I mentioned above. There is a view from some that people should be expected to work, no matter the practicalities.
We regularly hear of issues with employers unable to find employees. Seasonal horticultural work that some decline because doing the job, with the necessity of travelling to locations where public transport is not available, is impossible without using money they don’t have, to buy a car.
Similarly Queenstown businesses have had difficulty finding staff because people simply cannot find accommodation in the area that is affordable on hospitality wages.
Still, if you take away the safety net of welfare from people in scenarios like those just mentioned, then you can create downwards pressure on the cost of labour.
Nobody wants to see people abusing the system but these changes only make sense as punitive measures to excite the crowd. Are you not entertained?
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There are serious conversations and policies needed on the future of work. Whether we move to some sort of Universal Base Income as technological advances, and artificial intelligence, mean we need fewer workers.
This announcement isn’t a serious policy or idea for the future, and it’s certainly not for the benefit of the economy. It’s a gimmick to stick it to those living a meagre existence on welfare, for the entertainment, and votes, of those who begrudge paying for it and want to see them get what’s coming to them.