Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Bennett on benefits

A make-news piece by Tracey Watkins appears in today's Stuff content entitled;

'Serious questions' over some benefits

The Government is preparing to ask some "serious questions" about invalid's and sickness benefits as the jobs crisis eases.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett is flagging dramatic changes to the welfare system over the next few years as the Government has more room to drive through changes after the focus in its first 12 months being mainly on soaring unemployment.

"I think in the future how we approach welfare ... I do see that it may look quite different [including] quite a different way in which we approach things and help people to get well and get help and be more employable."

Tomorrow's Budget is expected to flag some of the changes, although more fundamental ones are likely to wait until a Welfare Reform Working Group reports back. It was set up to investigate whether the system needs radical change or just tinkering.

The idea that the government sets up working groups to discover whether "tinkering" is the answer is ludicrous, but when one considers how they eventually respond to recommendations made, "tinkering" is usually the upshot.

While the focus had been on unemployment numbers, meanwhile, they were starting to turn around and would "right themselves pretty much" over time.

"It's that invalid's benefit, sickness benefit, that we have to ask ourselves some pretty serious questions about and how and what we want that to look like in 10 years' time."

One of the issues was how agencies helped people to get well and back to work.

"All we do ... is pay them benefits and put them on training courses and hope they are going to get well.

"We are looking at different options at the moment and that is what the welfare working group are doing ... it could mean more [money] up front; spending more to get someone the operation they need, or more drug and alcohol rehabilitation."

And Labour didn't try all this stuff? That is exactly what Maharey did yet the numbers dependent continued to rise.

This problem is being tackled across the developed world but looks like trying to sculpt with melting ice. Governments herald tough new approaches but to little effect.

In the UK and Australia the initial emphasis was on redirecting new applicants into the dole queue. The numbers went up. Now they are reassessing existing claimants or announcing plans to. In the US people on Supplemental Security Income for disability (the uninsured) have been subjected to a great deal of review also. Not surprisingly the US have taken the most stringent approach and at least have numbers tracking in line with the population growth. Here numbers on the sickness and invalid's benefit keep rising as a percentage of working age people. The first graph below represents the sickness benefit; the second the invalids benefit.

The problem is multi-faceted. First we have to acknowledge (as the UK and Australia have) that the disability rolls have taken on many people who should have been on the unemployment benefit. That is a start and shifts the problem rightly into being one about jobs and not health.

Then the mental ill-health juggernaut will require some honest assessment. Instead of spending extra on mending people (which we simply do not have to spend) a redirection of cash assistance into other forms of support, rehab, shared living expenses and accommodation etc is needed. The living in the community experiment has failed for an unknown number.

There are people who, I can only repeat myself, are genuine cases and do not deserve to be stigmatised for their dependence.

Too many are not. And the easy availability of benefit income has assisted them in causing their own 'incapacities'.

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