Monday, March 29, 2010

The Dream Is Over

It was only a matter of time before the National government started harassing beneficiaries in earnest. Every indication concerning Paula Bennett’s eventual portfolio since long before the election campaign - it was in 2004 that then-spokeswoman Katherine Rich charted the course that the party would follow - pointed to the resurrection of the zombie idea of a work for the dole-type scheme, the introduction of work tests, tighter controls on disability benefits and a time limit for the DPB, all based on the core belief that the ideal welfare system should be ‘a genuine safety net’ and not ‘a lifestyle choice’ (Key again, from the same speech). So you knew that it was only a matter of time, and that it would most likely come when National needed a distraction, something to take the heat off another policy, or a Minister fumbling with his figures.

Thus last week, right on cue, Paula Bennett called a press-conference in which she announced that she would start mining the nation’s unemployed to bolster the government’s reserves of political consensus. And since Bennett herself is a woman who spent time on the Domestic Purposes Benefit, her primary target were women on the Domestic Purposes Benefit. For she is a reformed single mother and unemployed person, you see? So she knows what it’s like to live a life of welfare dependency, and she reckons she knows just the way to help you out of it. Not through schemes like the Training Initiative Allowance, no. She scrapped that, as a matter of fact. What she has in mind is a lot closer to bullying. In fact the person who came up with the idea, American political scientist Lawrence Mead, didn’t even bother to search for an euphemism. ‘Helping and hassling’, he called it.

Here’s how it will work: approximately forty thousand mothers on the DPB whose youngest child is over the age of six will face part time work tests, which translates into having to engage in the employment-seeking activities mandated by Work and Income and turn up to job interviews scheduled on their behalf by their case managers. Failure to comply will result in the halving of the benefit. Everybody else on the dole will have to reapply once a year and go through a work assessment exercise. From May next year, sickness beneficiaries deemed able to work part time will also have to engage in mandatory employment-seeking activities, or risk facing even harsher penalties than DPB recipients: halving of the benefit following the first non-compliance, then suspension of the benefit, then cancellation of the benefit on the third strike. People on the invalid’s benefit deemed able to work part time will be moved on to the sickness benefit, with the attendant increase in the number and frequency of compulsory reviews.

Those are the contents of the proposed Welfare Reform Bill, but what’s missing is just as significant: work creation schemes, training programmes, childcare provisions - the Minister will have none of that. Bearing in mind that her portfolio covers employment as well as welfare, she intends to increase the roll of active jobseekers by 50,000 units without increasing the pool of available jobs. What this will achieve is ratchet up the competition for what little work is available - and for minimum-wage work in particular - by means of an influx of people who aren’t allowed to say no, and whose marginal salary in many cases, according to Treasury’s own calculations, will be as little as one dollar per hour. As a consequence, the capacity of the workforce to negotiate better wages or conditions for this kind of work - a capacity already weakened by the ongoing crisis - will take a further hit, which is good news for the Reserve Bank in its titanic struggle against inflation and the nightmare of a high-wage society.

Don Brash with Ruth Richardson in 1991.

What the policy will also achieve is to victimise women and their children, and further exacerbate the feminisation of poverty. In her analysis of the beginnings of the assault on single mothers on the DPB under the tenure of Ruth Richardson, Jane Kelsey writes:
The moral responsibility argument was aimed mainly at the domestic purposes beneficiary. The prevailing image was of a young woman who had deliberately got pregnant knowing she could bludge off the state for the next fifteen years. She was never the victim of rape and incest, or the beaten wife who had escaped with her life but had no means to support herself or her children on her own, or a mother who had been deserted and left to fend for herself. She was frequently assumed to be cheating not only the state, but those of her fellow citizens who were prepared to make sacrifices, pay their taxes and obey the rules. (Kelsey, 281)

I wonder sometimes if there’s enough of an appreciation of how this supposedly hard-nosed yet rational approach to welfare policy is tinged with a downright archaic moral conservatism: for isn’t it the case here that we are asking women and the poor to pay for the sins of our society? And the chief of these sins is the imperfect application of economic theory, the vast, measurable gap between neoliberal reforms and their stated goal of making society more prosperous and just, even, if not primarily, for the people at the bottom.

Most of the original proponents of these reforms under Labour have since migrated to ACT, as is well known, but I wasn’t aware until quite recently that the name of the party is an acronym for Association of Consumers and Taxpayers. A beneficiary, and especially a woman on the DPB, is neither of those things, insofar as their modest acts of consumption are made possible by the taxes paid by others, and their economic output is nil, even if they happen to raise children, look after elder members of their whanau or carry out volunteer work in their communities. Not possessing a taxable income - except to the extent that some of the benefits themselves are taxed - the beneficiary is a non-person, a ghost, but a ghost who must be periodically and ritualistically summoned in order to underscore a fundamental message: that government spending in general, and social spending in particular, are an unnecessary evil, the thing that stands between the country and the triumph of its new economic model.

These ideas appeared to have saturated the public conversation when I arrived in New Zealand, in late 1997. Christine Rankin was about to follow Lawrence Mead's script in the restructuring of Income Support, and ads such as this one polluted the airwaves.

Demonising welfare recipients wasn't a wholly new phenomenon - Reagan had blazed that particular trail in 1976 with his description of a ‘welfare queen’ largely of his own invention, and the myth of welfare fraud goes back in America to the early Sixties - but in post-war New Zealand, where successive governments had pursued full employment until as late as 1984, convincing people that the unemployed are a drag on society as opposed to its victims was always going to require a more concerted effort. Hence the need for state-sponsored propaganda through ad campaigns such as the one above. Yet it also seemed to me at the time that the nation’s psyche was singularly vulnerable to crude narratives of that nature, and that even without being able to tap into a history of resentment against the poor, those ideas could be grafted onto the body politic with surprising and dispiriting ease. Some years later, I found resonance in Bruce Jesson's description of New Zealand as 'a hollow society, a society without texture, a society without centres of resistance' (Jesson, 70).

Jesson's history of the decade of neoliberal reform in New Zealand in Only Their Purpose Is Mad includes a chapter entitled The State of Amnesia. Here he shows that abandoning the cornerstone policies of full employment and universal social participation that had been so integral the country’s development and sense of nationhood required both a sudden rupture - the financial crisis that Douglas and his colleagues found themselves in charge of as soon as they took office - and a self-serving reinvention of what the time before that rupture had been like. As an immigrant, I have heard those stories first-hand many times: New Zealand in the Muldoon era was backward and insular, the pubs closed at six o'clock, the food was universally bland; the verdict on politico-economic issues is less unanimous, but I’ve heard many left-wing moderates say that while the old system was admirably equitable, it was no longer affordable, and there was no alternative except radical reform. In fact, as Jesson himself, Easton, Kelsey and others have extensively argued, the New Zealand economy in 1984 wasn’t in a deep state of crisis, nor was extreme market liberalism the only way forward. But it seems to me that the history has quite successfully been rewritten not just for the benefit of the victors who carried the day - the Roger Douglases, Ruth Richardsons and Roger Kerrs of this world - but also of the moderate Left that, having returned from its well-deserved time in the wilderness, found it more expedient not to reverse those traumatic changes, but simply to alleviate them. We still don’t have a capital gains tax, or a levy on financial transactions. We still have GST. Critically, we still allow the Reserve Bank to manufacture unemployment in order to keep a lid on wages and control inflation on behalf of the wealthy.

Don Brash with Michael Cullen in 1999.

What the last few months have shown is that New Zealand society isn’t any less hollow today than it was before the nine years of Clark’s government; it has no more texture. It is a fairer society, and in some areas significantly so, but it lacks in institutional and organised civil society barriers between the rapid implementation of further reforms and its most vulnerable citizens, who are bound to bear their brunt. So when Mr Finlayson found the Welfare Reform Bill to be in breach of Bill of Rights Act, Ms Bennett and Mr Key were able to shrug off the non-binding advice of their own Attorney General. ‘Those changes are hugely popular,’ said Bennett. And that’s all that matters.

As was the case when I first arrived in the country, it was the language in which the policies were presented that I found most extraordinary, most foreign. Key described the measures as a welcome ‘kick in the pants’. Bennett, in describing the consequences of non compliance, said this:
‘If a real, demonstrable effort has been made, their benefit will be reinstated. If not, well, I'm afraid the dream is over.’

‘The dream is over.’ She let it roll of the tongue. Think about that. The dream? Does she have any idea…? Well, of course she does. She was a beneficiary herself, wasn’t she? And that’s when you realise how shrewdly she was chosen for the job, how important it is to have a woman with her background deliver those hits. One of us, one of them. Not a ghoulish technocrat like Douglas, or the heir to a political dynasty, like Richardson, yet a person fully capable of delivering lines of devastating cynicism against her former kind. ‘The dream is over’. And while we sit on the sidelines, fretting and organising around campaigns that are closer to the interests of the middle class - against mining in national parks, whaling, budget cuts at Radio New Zealand; all worthy causes in their own right - thinking that perhaps we are making society less hollow, more textured, the dream, or more precisely the memory, really does evaporate, of a caring society that knew how to look after its own.

Scoop has an excellent roundup of the proposed changes to the benefit entitlements and the reactions from various quarters. Read also In a Strange Land and No Right Turn (1, 2).

A brief bibliography on welfare and Rogernomics, as an antidote to the State of Amnesia:

Brian S. Roper. Prosperity for All? Economic, Social and Political Change in New Zealand since 1935. Southbank: Thomson, 2005.
Bruce Jesson. Only Their Purpose Is Mad. The Money Men Take Over NZ. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 1999.
Jane Kelsey. The New Zealand Experiment. A World Model for Structural Readjustment? Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995.
Brian Easton (ed.). The Making of Rogernomics. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1989.

In a Land of Plenty, dir. Alister Barry, New Zealand 2002.