Friday, April 12, 2013

The rise of the paternal state

We're all familiar with the horror of the Nanny state: that beast that sets out to tell you how much water your shower head can dispense, what type of lightbulbs you can buy and dictates how much sugar you -  a free citizen! - can consume in one go. Yet underlying these Nanny state measures is a belief in the greater good; water or energy conservation, or a desire to improve the public's health.

Torys hate the Nanny state. Painting themselves as defenders of individual liberty and 'choice', a concept difficult to argue with, and they argue anything that circumscribes 'choice' should be stopped in its tracks. But what happens when you want to circumscribe people's choice and assault their legally enshrined human rights, not for the greater good but because, well, for some less obvious reason. Ladies and gentleman, please welcome National's paternalistic neo-con state.

Like the loathed Nanny state, the paternal state also likes to boss people around. In National's case this is in large part being achieved though changes to social security legislation. The latest changes to the Social Security Act were passed into law on Tuesday night. According to the commentary to the Bill (the Act itself is not available yet) the legislation aims to "extend work test and work preparation obligations, and to introduce social obligations." The current 7 categories of benefit will be replaced by 3: Jobseeker Support; sole parent benefit for sole parents whose youngest child is 14 or under; and a supported living allowance for the blind, maimed and those caring for the sick or infirm. Most beneficiaries will move onto Jobseeker Support, including those currently receiving a Sickness benefit. The legislation contains a raft of changes that patently fail to support the disabled, unemployed or those raising children on their own, but which are more focused on people's behaviour. The areas covered by the legislation include drug testing for beneficiaries and compulsory pre-school attendance for the children of sole parent beneficiaries. The government has so far failed to produce any evidence that the behaviour of beneficiaries is significantly different from that of others in the population, or that the changes will improve outcomes for beneficiaries and their children. Indeed, the emphasis on punitive sanctions in the Bill suggests National is rather less concerned with improving outcomes for this group of citizens.

The Bill moves sole parents from sole parent support to Jobseeker Support when their youngest child is over 14. This effectively treats those parents as single unemployed people with no caring responsibilities (in reality a benefit cut of $89 per week). The Bill also imposes work obligations and 'pre-benefit activities'. These are hoops through which the newly unemployed/sick/single must jump before they even get to sign up for a benefit. In practice they usually involve going to classes in order to learn how to write a CV and covering letter. The Bill also has provisions allowing the "chief executive to require a recipient of a supported living payment to attend an interview to determine their capacity to comply with work preparation activities." But for most disabled people, unwillingness to work is not the issue. In its submission to the Select Committee, CCS Disability Action stated: "[the bill] will not add one single more job for a disabled people… it does nothing about attitudes of employers and workers. It does nothing about the ability to make adjustments in the workplace. Nothing about access to education or work experience. If the bill wishes to provide opportunities for people with disabilities to move into the workforce, it doesn’t contribute.” Indeed, a work obligation works much better when (1) there are jobs to go to, and (2) people do not face discrimination in the labour market.

The Bill's 'social obligations' are concerned mostly with education or medical check-ups for children. This suggests that sole parent beneficiaries are incapable of caring for their children without the firm paternal hand of the state nudging them. There is no evidence for this. The best publicised so-called social obligation is that requiring the children of sole parent beneficiaries attend a "recognised ECE programme". However it is unlikely the ECE sector has the capacity to deal with the increase in demand that will inevitably arise, especially as the low-income neighbourhoods where most sole parent beneficiaries live are poorly served by ECE facilities. The Labour Minority Report (p.13) notes: "The Child Poverty Action Group informed the committee that their analysis found a large gap between the number of children in low-income areas in particular, and early childhood education places. If the Government truly wishes to address the barriers to education in a child’s critical years, the focus should be on availability, cost, and transport." Quite.

Other social obligations include requiring WellChild/Tamariki Ora checks be up to date, and ensuring children attend school. The school attendance obligation is peculiar, not least because there is evidence that one of the main contributors to children skipping school or dropping out is transience and homelessness. However, there have been no attempts by the government to address chronic and severe housing shortages in places such as Auckland and Christchurch. Failure to comply with these social obligations will result in sanctions including parents losing up to 50% of their benefit.

Included in the worktest obligation is a new provision for drug testing beneficiaries. Curiously, the National-led majority on the Select Committee amended the definition of "drug test” in section 88A of the Act "to make it explicit that the purpose of a drug test is to detect the presence of controlled drugs rather than to determine whether the person tested is impaired." Why? If the aim of the Bill is to get people into work then the issue surely is whether or not they are impaired and a danger to others in the workplace. The emphasis on controlled drugs is a red herring. And it nicely deflects from the not insignificant risk posed by workers who have been drinking (and from National's liquor industry donors). Will this make the workplace safer or stop beneficiaries from ingesting controlled substances? Probably not, and in the absence of follow-up studies it is unlikely we will ever know. This is little more than the state waving a big stick at the vulnerable. And of course, failing a drug test incurs sanctions. Exemptions are available for addicts but there is little available by way of rehabilitation services, and it sidesteps the issue of alcohol addiction.

The Bill also provides for benefit cuts to beneficiaries with outstanding arrest warrants. Clearly, this is more about behaviour modification of the perceived underclass than any real attempt to deal with problems such as addiction, unemployment or transience. Amusingly, the Select Committee report feigns a concern for "natural justice" in the operation of these provisions.

In effect, the government attempting to deal with issues in the health, education, criminal justice and early childhood eduction sectors through the welfare system. This fundamentally changes the purpose and nature of welfare: it is no longer a rights-based safety net universally available for those who need temporary or perhaps permanent assistance; rather it becomes a highly conditional payment that can be readily withdrawn if recipients do not meet an arbitrary standard of behaviour set from above. This is very dangerous ground and it is a shame New Zealanders have been prepared to give up their social security so readily.

Similarly, the provisions requiring beneficiaries to deal with 'preferred suppliers' suggest part of the bigger picture of the welfare reforms is to privatise what is a core state service, that is the care and protection of the vulnerable. Anyone familiar with the shambles arising from such moves in the UK should be hearing very loud alarm bells. It also means beneficiaries have no security of provider which can make it very difficult to build relationships. We understand the disability sector is also concerned about these provisions. 

One aspect of the Bill that has received little attention, but gives away that this is really about a new form of social control, is that the provisions pertaining to worktests, pre-benefit tests and the like not only apply to beneficiaries, but also to their partners. These provisions - essentially a form of collective guilt - have no social policy justification and appear to serve the sole purpose of capturing as many people as possible in the welfare reform net. One particularly noxious provision is that the partners of those receiving a supported living allowance on ground of caring for a patient are captured by the social obligations if they are caring for a child or not. What on earth for? What is this supposed to achieve? It seems that whatever the intent, this nonsense will add more stress to already financially and socially stressed households. This is social engineering, although it's not clear what exactly is being engineered except a mindless compliance with petty rules and regulations.

The 'partners too' provisions also seem odd in light of who actually gets a benefit: the proposed Jobseeker Allowance is for a single unemployed person or former Sickness beneficiaries; a sole parent by definition doesn't have a partner; it is impossible to see how two sets of obligations on married couples receiving a benefit will improve outcomes for anyone; and for those receiving assisted living payments, imposing worktest obligations on partners who are probably needed at home is just bloody-minded. It's possible the counter argument is that if partners are working the family has more income but this is not certain, and the government hasn't produced any figures to support this or any other argument in favour of this policy.

At 199 pages the Bill is long, dense and poorly drafted, and only the main points have been covered here. Somehow the National majority on the Select Committee managed to take a dog of a Bill and make it worse. But the real point is this: National has done a great job of convincing talkback listeners that anyone on welfare (and their partners) is taking drugs, defrauding the system and letting their kids run wild, and the only appropriate response is to single out this group with the petty and vindictive legislation. History shows that when we let governments get away with this with one group, they quickly start to pick off others as well. As the economy loses ever more jobs, or creates only part-time insecure jobs, more New Zealanders will find themselves at the mercy of this reconfigured welfare system. Working people will find the rights and choices they took for granted will suddenly be circumscribed. The punitive paternalistic state will have arrived.

Martin Doyle: "I half to confess that I did not make up this revolting meanness: it's just life
in modern NZ, it seems."