Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Model work(er)

Under pressure to 'do something' about child poverty, the newly re-elected National government has done, well, nothing, but it has talked up a storm.

A key strategy for the government has been to argue that the gap between benefits and wages must be maintained (23 years after the fact, National still won't admit that its 1991 benefit cuts resulted in massive increases in child poverty) because work, and work alone, is to be the way out of poverty. The 'work first' discourse has a very 19th century, patriarchal tone that echoes the Victorian idea that relief for the disabled and unemployed had to be mean and unpleasant in order to deter the idle poor from shirking.

The moral case for the (self) disciplinary virtues of paid work are commonly an integral part of the case for getting parents - or anyone else who isn't "totally blind or permanently and severely restricted in his or her capacity for work" - into employment. There is little empirical support for such moral claims but they serve the purpose of enabling the blame for people's situation to be sheeted home to their own shortcomings rather than to systematic and deliberate economic violence. All of which brings us to the latest offering in this vein from Messers Russell Wills, Children's Commissioner, and Phil O'Reilly, Chief Executive of Business New Zealand.
Phil O'Reilly has done a reasonable job of sounding concerned about child poverty over the last few years. But Business New Zealand is, for all intents and purposes, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the National Party, and has provided vocal support for National while it has undermined the ability of New Zealanders to make a decent living through working. How this is compatible with alleviating child poverty is not clear.

As Commissioner for Children, Russell Wills put together the Expert Advisory Group that produced an evidence-based report on how to deal with child poverty in New Zealand. It wasn't perfect, and as with most social policy issues many of the proposals were contested. But this debate is healthy in social policy, and the report and working papers were generally of high quality and made a worthwhile contribution.

So what with Mr Wills being a paediatrician and focused on evidence-based policy, we were startled to read that "parents [ in paid work] have better self-esteem and purpose, and model work as the norm their children aspire to." Better purpose? Who said? Where is the evidence for this? Did the authors ask any sole parents? If they had they might have found there's nothing wrong with beneficiary parents' self-esteem but they get sick of not having enough money to feed their kids, and having to put up with ill-informed statements from the commentariat.

And where is the evidence that children take their parents' 'good' behaviour as a model for their own? How do we know that the children of beneficiary parents do not have their own aspirations? This, gentlemen, is little more than the patriarchal, moralistic fantasy of men who (to steal a phrase from a wonderful friend) are not not at the coalface raising children on a very low income. Further, for the authors to argue that "incomes are too low" when Business New Zealand has been at the forefront of efforts to keep them low is disingenuous. 

Russell WIlls has done a great deal to bring the issue of child poverty to the public's attention. it is a shame he is in danger of unravelling this good work by buying into the 'work is the way out of poverty' myth when their is no evidence that it is, and it fails to acknowledge both a lack of suitable employment for sole parents, and that many parents simply cannot work. Most importantly, it undermines the notion that parenting is work, and hard work at that. I don't doubt Mr WIlls' determination to improve the lives of New Zealand children, but this must be on terms that respect their rights as children, and their whanau's right to care for them. Paid work comes after that.