On February 22nd, the day the second Christchurch Earthquake struck, Paula Bennett’s Welfare Working Group (WWG) released its recommendations, which were greeted with a lively and well attended protest demonstration at the Henderson office of Work and Income in Auckland. The more spectacular of the two catastrophes of course received far greater attention from the media, despite the momentousness of the WWG’s report, and the likelihood that in the long term the recommended welfare “reforms” could result in a higher but less easily visible toll of casualties.
At a time of high unemployment attributable entirely to the unresolved global economic crisis, the WWG’s recommendations set the ambitious target of “at least 100,000 fewer working age people receiving welfare by 2021…” Needless to say, the measures recommended to achieve this goal are thoroughly draconian, and include intensive case management of “Job Seekers” (as all beneficiaries including sole parents and invalids are to be designated) with punitive sanctions for those who seek but fail to find non-existent employment: Benefit cuts and stand-downs and forced labour are the order of the day.
In the preamble the WWG report predictably claims, “Our welfare system has major deficiencies that need to be corrected…” Substitute the word “report” for “welfare system” and their claim would be valid. A search of the report in electronic pdf file yields zero results for certain words with obvious relevance, namely “recession”, “depression” or “financial crisis”. This glaring omission cannot be explained by culpable ignorance or naivety on the group’s part, as the report does at one point fleetingly refer to the global crisis, trivializing it as an “economic downturn” which it blithely assume will be temporary. Nowhere do they discuss whether such optimism is warranted, nor do they address its implications, which if adequately considered would make a mockery of their ideological premises; which is that demand for jobs will generate a supply of jobs. They merely recommend that the government “undertakes an investigation into whether labour market barriers to employment need to be addressed as part of a strategy to reduce benefit dependency”. This attests to its disgraceful failure to make that very investigation necessary to formulate meaningful recommendations, and thus implicitly testifies to its ideological blindness.
The real significance of this gross omission is as follows: By pretending that no economic crisis has occurred it becomes unnecessary to blame the government’s bosom-friends, the finance capitalists, for the widespread misery they have caused, and equally unnecessary to correctly identify the crisis as the real cause of the high levels of welfare dependency that the WWG so self-righteously deplores- and condemns. Instead, the wrath of the working class at being subjected to wage & employment cuts is diverted to the convenient scapegoats in the form of the crisis’ hardest-hit victims. Thus does the working class become divided and weakened at a time when in angry unity it could rise up to threaten the abusive power of its oppressors.
More than just diverting the blame for the crisis onto its victims, the WWG’s recommendations will serve very effectively to divert the cost of the crisis onto the working class as a whole. When 100 000 sole parents and invalids are goaded into the labour market they will be competing for employment with an army of former government employees laid off by cuts just announced to the civil service.
The threat of eviction if not starvation will force them to accept whatever wage employers care to offer, however low, and crisis- hit employers will be to intent on defending their threatened profits at anyone’s expense but their own. So wages will be driven down to maintain bosses profits. That this is the true purpose of “welfare reform” is borne out by other such anti-worker legislation as the 90-day Fire-at-Will Act.
Further evidence that the WWGs recommendations are tailored to suit the corporate agenda is that along with the radically “fundamental” reform of placing all claimants on a “Job Seeker” benefit goes the contracting out of welfare services to “private and community, not-for-profit sector agencies to deliver employment services.”
When the “community” has been devastated (earthquakelike) by other neo-liberal cutbacks, that leaves the field clear for such multi-national “players” as Lockheed -Martin, which has extended its tentacles all over the US welfare system. Oops, this overlooks the Iwi agencies whom, considering the disproportionate representation of Maori amongst the unemployed, are to be assigned a major role in achieving the aforementioned target of reduction by 100,000.
Amongst the most maniacally single-minded of the WWG’s “work-focused” recommendations (albeit only by a “majority”) is the one “that a work test in the case of parents having an additional child while on welfare should be aligned with paid parental leave provisions (when the youngest child reaches 14 weeks).” This despite paying lip service elsewhere to “identify[ing] the likely impact of welfare reform on the well-being of children.” That WWG is apparently unaware after months of “consultation” that the “likely impact” has already been identified by concerned professionals (otherwise it could never have considered such a proposal) is proof that it has been selective in its consultation.
Perhaps this last proposal was calculated to make John Key look benign in comparison when he publicly rejected it.
With respect to the last recommendation, the WWG covers its backside by recommending that “the current Taskforce on Early Childhood Education consider ways to improve the availability and affordability of childcare and early childhood education services for lower paid families and people on welfare, including reprioritising some of the existing ECE expenditure.”
True to its real agenda, Key’s government has already responded ever so benignly to this the only commendable recommendation by slashing the funding of ECE with the effect of making childcare services unaffordable to those who will be coerced into using them.
On top of punitive sanctions against alleged malingerers there is intrusive prying into domestic affairs, with for example sanctions against mothers who become pregnant while receiving a benefit. Before the last election the corporate media were trumpeting the accusatory and disparaging slogan of “Nanny State” in their eagerness to get the NatActs elected. Their deafening silence now is hardly attributable to natural disasters. The hated ‘nanny state’ has been heavyed out of the way by the big ‘Daddy’ state. For the working class it has become a harsh, puritanical and Calvinistic Victorian patriarch, with values that match its pure Victorian throwback dog eat dog economic policies.