POLITICS WEEK: Metiria Turei’s Benefit Fraud Scandal – Are We Missing the Point on Social Welfare?

By James Adams

Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei recently revealed that, as a young solo mother, she lied to the Department of Social Welfare (now WINZ) in order to claim more money than she was entitled to. Predictably, people rushed to either condemn her for ‘fraud’ or to congratulate her on the basis that coming clean takes ‘bravery.’ Labour party Deputy Leader Jacinda Ardern said that while she wasn’t going to be judgemental, she could not, as a lawmaker, “condone” Turei’s breaking of the law. Even now, after she has stepped down as co-leader of the Green Party, conversations about this political drama have tended to focus on the personal aspect –whether she should pay the money back, whether she was fit to be a politician and why she kept it quiet for so long.

But all these questions miss the point. Turei’s confession was meant to encourage people to reconsider about the hardships that people on the benefit face. Regardless of the messenger, that’s a conversation we need to have.

We should remind ourselves that the establishment of New Zealand’s welfare state was as popular as it was forward-thinking. Its architect was Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage, who introduced the Social Security Act 1938 by declaring that “I want to see humanity secure against poverty, secure in illness or old age.” It wasn’t perfect: Māori were often left out, and it was missing some critical planks, which later governments developed. But the idea of a comprehensive support system for people in need was -for its time- imaginative, economically sound and socially just.

Fast forward almost eighty years. The number of people claiming support in each category of benefits is shown below – for reference, approximately the same number of people are ‘on welfare’ today as were in 2008, when National was elected.

Jobseeker Benefit Sole Parent Support Assisted Living Payment Other Main Benefits
June 2017 118,776 60,631 92,991 3,933

Behind each of these numbers are human stories, and those stories are too often characterised by a daily struggle to make ends meet. Beneficiaries disproportionately live in New Zealand’s coldest, dampest homes, and as a result, many fall sick to preventable diseases. Crime, including domestic violence, also feature in many -but not all- of these people’s lives, as do mental health issues. In addition, many welfare recipients experience stigmatisation, including from those whose job it is to provide support. They endure a system which is clunky and often unfair.

It’s important to recognise that those who are receiving the taxpayer’s help are not a homogenous group. Approximately a third of the mothers or fathers receiving the Sole Parent Support in any given year will no longer need it the year after, and this is a sign that -for some people- the system is indeed a springboard back into a self-dependent life.

That being said, getting off welfare is not guaranteed to be a good thing -it’s impractical to expect some people to take on paid employment, such as those with serious impairments or several children of different ages. Where the only precarious work exists, then there is a strong argument that suggests people should stay at home until something better comes along; it’s an argument that gains some credence when (by one measure) two in every five children in poverty come from a family with at least one parent in full-time work. Indeed, many of the points raised here about beneficiaries are also applicable to the working poor.

Some of these situations are simply bad luck. Sometimes it is the government’s fault, especially where politicians have failed to prevent (or actively encouraged) the negative consequences of social or economic processes. And yes, sometimes the individuals who are reliant on benefits should shoulder their share of the responsibility. Yet, regardless of how people came to be needing help, we are all going to be paying for the consequences of inaction.

Taxpayers cough up for the money provided to beneficiaries, and we pay for the extra money that their children need to get a proper education. We pay for the ambulances at the bottom of the cliff and expensive hospital stays for conditions that could have been avoided. We all pay for the extra policing, the billion-dollar prisons, and we all mourn alongside the victims of crime. In fact, we all have a stake in each other’s futures.

So whether you approach the issue of the welfare from the perspective that your hard-earned tax dollar is going towards a system that often doesn’t work, or if you’re more concerned about the human tragedy, then you’ll be looking for an alternative.

In 2012 and 2013, the National Government instituted some fairly major changes to the benefits system on the recommendations of the Welfare Working Group. These changes simplified the different benefits a person can claim, which appears to makes sense. They also instituted a much harsher system of obligations and penalties; again, some of these, like requiring welfare recipients to have their children immunised, seem intelligent. Other changes, however, made it harder for people to claim help when they need it and, as a result, we have the system as it stands today: neither economically sound nor socially just.

The Green Party’s proposal seeks to remove almost all the obligations instituted in 2012. Tax changes would fund a 20% increase for all main benefits and a guaranteed Child Payment (to replace the In Work Tax Credit), while the minimum wage would also be raised. Turei called it “the most fundamental changes to our welfare system in 30 years,” so perhaps some of the hype and consternation is justified.

Personally, I doubt it. This policy pales in comparison to the Social Security Act 1938, and not just because it is unlikely that it will be passed. It lacks a critical ingredient: imagination, for where Michael Joseph Savage constructed a new system, this policy merely undoes parts of the old one. The Greens criticised the current provisions to require absentee fathers to contribute to the costs of bringing up their children, but they were silent about how they would fix this thorny issue instead. They complained, legitimately, about the effect of arbitrary obligations on welfare recipients, but rather than considering which obligations are valid and which are unhelpful, they propose to scrap the lot. Suggestions as to how to help beneficiaries at risk of domestic violence, substance abuse or precarious work are decidedly absent.

Mending the our country’s social security net is a difficult challenge, for there are a wide range of views and a multitude of relevant factors. As I see it, the current system does not live up to the expectations of its founders, that it would see humanity secure against poverty. Instead of feeding the media firestorm, let’s have more meaningful conversations on this issue. That way, we might be able to imagine something better.

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