Friday, July 17, 2020

Tale of two tenets

As the election looms, two minor parties, both likely to feature in the next parliament – ACT and the Greens – couldn’t be further apart in their tenets regarding welfare and child well-being.

Perhaps the single-most underrated and under-reported issue in New Zealand is the practice of adding children to existing benefits. Oodles is spoken and written about child poverty, particularly by the Prime Minister who appointed herself Minister of Child Poverty Reduction in 2017. But the fact that 6,000 children are added to an existing benefit and a further 3-4,000 are reliant on welfare by their first birthday never rates a mention. The numbers have varied only slightly over the past 30 years and persist at very high levels. One in ten babies goes home from hospital to a benefit- dependent family.

The links between welfare dependence from birth and poor, if not disastrous outcomes, have now been well-explored by institutions like AUT and Treasury. The latter identified 4 indicators:

1)    a finding of abuse or neglect;
2)    spending most of their lifetime supported by benefits;
3)    having a parent who’d received a community or custodial sentence; and
4)    a mother with no formal qualifications

Using retrospective data they were able to predict outcomes:

“Compared to children with none of the four indicators, children aged 0-5 years with two or more of the four indicators are:

– eight times more likely to have contact with Youth Justice services before age 18 (14% compared to 2%)
– three times more likely to leave school with no qualifications (36% compared to 13%)
– six times more likely to receive benefits for more than two years before the age of 21 (20% compared to 3%)
 – ten times more likely to spend time in jail before the age of 21 (6% compared to 0.6%)
– four times more likely to receive benefits for more than five years when they are aged 25-34 years (21% compared to 5%).”

72% of the children with all four indicators were Maori. These heightened risks lie at the heart of the country’s ongoing inter-generational failure.

It is a logical conclusion to draw that reducing the incidence of child benefit dependence is a desirable goal. But the PM doesn’t agree. And neither do the Greens. For them, increasing the income provided by benefits is the most important aim.

Labour has already headed down this road by substantially increasing child tax credits and introducing a whole new payment, Best Start, for children aged 0-2. The Greens want to develop on this by universalising and increasing Best Start to $100 weekly,  a $110 top-up for sole parents, and “no stand-down periods, no deduction of child support and no sanctions” (i.e. no individual  responsibility).

ACT, on the other hand, has firmly focused their policy on the phenomenon of children being born onto welfare and not infrequently spending their entire lives there. They point out that it isn’t acceptable for these families to keep having children when other families wait and sacrifice, and sometimes never have their own or additional children. More to the point, it is entirely unacceptable for children to be carelessly thrown into environments that harm them and rob them of their potential.

ACT’s policy says that if someone already on a benefit adds another child their benefit income will thereafter be managed. Rent and utilities will be paid direct, with the large part of the remainder of their benefit loaded onto an electronic card to be used in specified retail outlets. Work and Income already has the technology to do this. They operate income management for Youth and Young Parent beneficiaries in this fashion.

Under this regime children should be guaranteed a secure roof over their heads instead of the insecure transience resulting from unpaid rents, evictions and homelessness. Their schooling would be less interrupted with increased geographical stability. They should have adequate food in their tummies in and out of term time (not assured under school lunch programmes).  Their  mother may be encouraged to take advantage of the fully- subsidised, highly effective,  long-acting contraceptives now available, ameliorating the overcrowding which is a significant factor in New Zealand’s horribly high rate of rheumatic fever. Perhaps most importantly their parent(s) will actually decide working is a better option if they want agency over their income. There is a risk caregivers will try to supplement their incomes in other undesirable, illegal  ways but no policy is risk free, and this almost certainly already happens to some degree.

Increasingly throwing money at dysfunctional families provides no assurance parents will suddenly become better budgeters, or not simply spend more on harmful behaviours. Gambling and substance abuse don’t just hurt the parent. They hurt the child directly (damage in the womb, physical abuse or neglect under the influence) not to mention indirectly through parental role-modelling that normalizes bad behaviours, especially violence, to their children.

The two approaches to child benefit dependence are a world apart. One continues the ‘freedom’ of the adult to use taxpayer’s money as they wish; the other prioritizes the best interests of the child -their right to security, stability and safety – or, as ACT puts it, what the taxpayer thinks they are paying for.

The country cannot go on merely paying lip-service to the idea of ‘breaking the cycle’. Now is not the time for more of the same. More than ever New Zealand cannot afford the social cost and lost potential that occurs monotonously in an easily identifiable portion of every generation.

ACT and the Greens present very clear alternatives in their beliefs and policy, and while neither will form the next government on their own, either could be an influential part of it. One promotes the best interests of the child, while the other promotes the best interests of the so-called ‘grown-ups’ euphemistically called ‘caregivers’ – I know which one I will be supporting.

(First published at NZCPR)

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Broken benefit system?

Obviously the sharp increase in benefit numbers to 353,440 or 11.8% of the working-age population at the end of June is a result of the economic response to Covid.

However there are other factors contributing to increased numbers.

Firstly benefit cancellations for medical reasons have dropped right away. That means people are not getting fixed in the health system. The issue hasn't been getting a lot of coverage yet but the growth in waiting lists must be significant. Firsthand experience and plenty of anecdotal evidence tells me this is the case.

Secondly sanctions have been all but suspended due to resources going into processing new applications. With the Greens actively campaigning for sanctions to go permanently one wonders if they will ever be re-instated. Without sanctions there is no point in obligations. Without obligations the system is open slather.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The young don't vote

Not an excitable person by nature, I still managed to say out loud, walking on the beach with my dogs today, earphone in and listening to Magic Talk, "Bullshit."

Some panelist or commentator was saying that because Jacinda appeals to the young, National had to select a leader who could do the same.

Idiocy.  National should represent the values it traditionally has and appeal to the older voters that reliably go to the ballot boxes. Demographics are on their side. Proportionately the young vote less,  and their share of the electorate is shrinking proportionately.

Certainly, parties need to renew their voter base over time but right now, in these extraordinary times, that consideration is not a priority.

Pleased Judith Collins is new leader and I like Gerry as deputy.

Now we'll see how much real support there is for the political status quo.

(Written as an ACT voter).

A poverty of plain speaking never affected Judith Collins

Judith Collins has been in parliament for a long time and I have blogged about her for the duration. Not extensively but when I agreed or disagreed with her comments. She was, after all, National's spokesperson on Social Development from 2005-08. She once made a deliberately audible comment when I approached her at a welfare forum, "Here comes Lindsay Mitchell to tell me I am too soft on welfare." Didn't bother me bar I never saw myself as 'hard' on welfare. I just believed welfare was hard on kids.

But here's a relatively recent contribution (2016) that contains more than a kernel of truth. It's also a good example of why I wrote this morning, "...she says what she means and means what she says." The link is still live:

Reported on Radio New Zealand:

Ms Collins was challenged at the Police Association's annual conference in Wellington today by a delegate, who said poverty was making law enforcement harder.

The delegate said his officers had been very busy with gangs, which he said were often filled with people who had experienced poverty as children.

The government's approach to child poverty was criticised in a recent United Nations report, as well as by opposition politicians.

Ms Collins responded by saying the government was doing a lot more for child poverty in New Zealand than the UN had ever done.

In New Zealand, there was money available to everyone who needed it, she said.

"It's not that, it's people who don't look after their children, that's the problem.

"And they can't look after their children in many cases because they don't know how to look after their children or even think they should look after their children."

Monetary poverty was not the only problem, she said.

"I see a poverty of ideas, a poverty of parental responsibility, a poverty of love, a poverty of caring."

As the MP for Papakura, she saw a lot of those problems in south Auckland, she said.

"And I can tell you it is not just a lack of money, it is primarily a lack of responsibility.

"I know that is not PC, but, you know, that's me."

I see a poverty of plain speaking holding NZ back, badly, if the practice is not re-established. Collins could trigger its return.

Two minute Todd

Who knows what goes on in the National Party? Like most of the public I can do no more than speculate on the veracity of the reasons Todd Muller has given for resigning this morning. But I can limit my response to that perspective.

Todd tried too hard. I responded to his Te Aroha speech here concluding he was trying to play Jacinda at her own game. Too risky.

Consequently he never appeared to be 'his own man' and that is absolutely vital for a leader and someone trying to sell himself as such in extremely uncertain times.

If my sense of the mood is accurate, at least half the country wants a very different alternative to Labour. They are turned off by identity politics -  accusations of racism, sexism and ageism that know no bounds or definition. Witch-hunting Me Tooism. Ever increasing wealth redistribution to address 'inequality' when equality of opportunity has never been greater. The soaking of the public service in Maori spiritualism in a secular society. The obsession with diversity (which preempted Muller's second hiccough.) And the religion of climate change which wrongly insists unsettled science is settled.

Todd was either trying to tiptoe through this cultural minefield or is genuinely conflicted. Anyone who is a parent right now, especially of teenagers and young adults, faces the chasm in thinking between generations on multiple issues. And forget the media and your colleagues: your offspring can be the toughest critics to handle because you have to listen to them.

But who now?  Judith "Is there something wrong with being white?" Collins?

She's tough enough. Listening to her promoting her new book there is no sense of her wanting it but there is a strong sense of her not leaving politics any time soon. And there also appear to be a few scores she would like to settle, even if she can't directly.

She'd be my pick if for no other reason than she says what she means and means what she says.