Friday, September 21, 2012

Welfare reform: what do we mean by dependence?

This is the first of what we are hoping will be a series on the government's welfare reforms. There needs to be discussion about some of what underlies the reforms and the blatant misinformation justifying them, and almost none of that discussion is occurring in the mainstream media. While the reforms have the appearance of 'dog-whistle politics', and the steady drip feed of announcements suggests they are being used for exactly that purpose, in fact they constitute a broad political project that ultimately seeks to undermine the social assistance available for ordinary New Zealanders. The desired end point of the project is a bit unclear, being delivered as it is by the most dim government in generation, but there can be no doubt the aim is to take the 'security' out of social security.
This week the government introduced legislation for its second round of welfare reforms. Underlying the reforms to date - right back to the Terms of Reference for the Welfare Working Group (see here, page 1) - has been the use of the term 'dependence'. Dependence is bad - people who are dependent are unable to (as Mitt Romney so inelegantly put it earlier this week) 'take personal responsibility and care for their lives'. This is pretty shocking: we should all be able to take responsibility for ourselves, right? And what about those who won't? They need a not-so-gentle nudge from a caring state in the person of Ms Bennett, a former sole parent now kicking the ladder out from underneath her as fast as she possibly can. Independence, on the other hand, is virtuous and helps us lead happy, noble lives working whatever crap occupation it is that most of us do.
But what does 'dependent' actually mean? Applied to those receiving assistance from the state, it suggests moral decay, that 'dependents' do not share 'our' societal values and norms, and learned helplessness, as people shamelessly cadge money from honest taxpayers. But in a globalised market economy, we are all increasingly dependent on one another, and often on people we will never meet or even see. As consumers most of us are utterly dependent on the ability of global supply chains to bring safe, palatable food to our supermarkets; we are likewise dependent on others to provide clean water, energy, and spooky masks at Halloween. Companies depend on their suppliers, their workers, the financial health of their customers and (believe it or not) a functional, non-corrupt state to maintain a level playing field and provide public goods such as roads. So dependence is not inherently a Bad Thing. It is only bad, it seems, when applied to certain segments of the population.
The main recipients of social assistance - the dependent ones - are unemployed, sick or invalid, or are sole parents. What we often forget, but quickly becomes evident when you talk to people down on their luck, is that one or the other of these can happen to any of us. One day you're at work, the next day your factory is closing. As an unemployed person, are you dependent on the state for income? You betcha. THAT IS WHY WE HAVE A BENEFIT SYSTEM: so Mr or Ms Dependent doesn't have to starve or sell their firstborn into slavery. Does it necessarily mean they are lazy, witless moochers who are incapable of finding another job? Of course not. And as has been stated over and over again, the benefit statistics show that when jobs are available people move off welfare and into work. Even sole parents. That's because being on a benefit is horrible and the pay is really bad.
'Dependence' as a pejorative term is a mainstay of welfare reform rhetoric. It's function is to present neoliberal economic policies (the shredding of the safety net) in the guise of a moral issue. National has long used 'dependence' to present the moral case for its welfare reforms, with the then Department of Social Welfare running the 'Beyond Dependency' conference back in 1997. The moral case is made primarily through scapegoating sole mothers: accordingly economic measures are often coupled with policies that attempt to change the behaviour of women. They include policies that penalise teen mothers (New Zealand has recently implemented policies that place greater restrictions on teen mothers), policies that attempt to reward women who repartner (Bridefare) and policies that punish women who have further children while receiving government assistance (see s39 of this). This merging of financial support with the regulation of behaviour barely conceals the fact that there is no theoretical or empirical basis for the term 'dependency' as applied to welfare recipients. Being in receipt of a benefit provides no reliable information on a person's levels of personal motivation, their ability to care for themselves or their children, their ability to budget, run a household or grow vegetables, or their drug-taking proclivities. All it tells us is that they are on a benefit for reasons we (mostly) don't know. Of course it's true some on benefits are inadequate parents, drink to excess (as we all might in their situation), and try to game the system. But this is also true of some company directors.
As a rhetorical tool, 'dependence' has worked well to help push through reforms that punish the most vulnerable and label people in a way that would be entirely unacceptable in any other context. It also has the advantage that it sets the reformer on the moral high ground, allowing them the claim that they are helping the indigent for their own good. It allows us to blame the unemployed, the sick and the widowed and separated for their own plight, even in an economy that is shedding jobs. It also muddies the function of welfare reform: it is not to improve the lives of recipients or their children (that much is propaganda) but to reduce the state's role in supporting individuals in an economy dependent on cheap, desperate labour.
The focus on reforming welfare rather than creating jobs is a shitty way to run an economy, but (Mitt Romney again), National appears to think its job 'is not to worry about those people'.