Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Lindsay Mitchell: The Church in the welfare debate

The emergence of a 'shadow' welfare working group is an interesting if somewhat predictable development. Predictable because any welfare debate is destined to become highly political and the idea that all views can be heard and accommodated is farcical. That's inevitable when any social service - health, education or welfare - is primarily the domain of the state. The only money government has is that which it generates from the public, and who then benefits from its redistribution is a highly contentious matter. All parties wanting a slice of the pie, either directly or as advocates for others, naturally become very nervous and defensive when there is a prospect the status quo may be upset.

Sharing this disquiet is an unusual mix of Catholics, Anglicans and secular politicians and academics. Often these groups would be in conflict with each other, for instance on the subjects of abortion and same-sex marriage. But, in the matter of welfare, they are joined. And it isn't the left wing politicians and academics that have shifted ground. It is the churches.

Most churches today call for more state intervention and cash transfer in the name of poverty alleviation . Whether that method actually works (there is plenty of empirical and researched evidence that it only leads to more workless homes) rarely gets an airing .

Mainstream churches have increasingly leaned on the state to provide assistance traditionally supplied by the family, community, charities and themselves. This seems an abrogation of what Christian principles and teaching would demand. Because helping one's brother should be an act of love - not a transaction furnished by the compulsory removal of one man's resources to give to another. When did we last hear the churches talk about the role of families in the welfare debate? Yet in so many instances people on benefits today would, in the past, have been supported by family. A recent case on TVNZ's Close Up featured a teenager who had suffered a nasty attack and been unable to work because of psychological after-effects. ACC, after a year and a half, told the now 19 year-old she needed to get "off the couch" and back to work. That would be both therapeutic for her and relieve ACC of the weekly $400 compensation pay-out. Her mother remonstrated to the media that this was cruel and unreasonable. Presumably only a couple of years earlier the child had been a dependent and the mother's concern. Why wasn't she still? Why wasn't the family of the young woman financially supporting her?

Where is the church protest against the subsidisation of fatherless families? Catholics are strong proponents of marriage yet almost half of the babies born each year are now born outside marriage. This new phenomenon leads to a good deal of dependence on welfare either immediately or at some point down the track. The only church apparently concerned about this is a non-traditional variety - Destiny.

In some cases churches are direct beneficiaries of state money. Presbyterian Services and Salvation Army both receive substantial government funds to provide services. This leaves them acting as agencies and instruments of the state instead of independent and autonomous organisations. They naturally become corroborative and collaborative.

As for the left-wing politicians and academics making up the band, they will broadcast their usual complaints. Their resentment of freedom from economic regulation, freedom to accumulate wealth (ignoring the creation of jobs and economic growth in the process) and unequal incomes (except their own of course).

With the prospect of work-testing single mothers looming, they want a debate about the value put on caring. Monetary value that is. But for the collective to put a monetary value on caring it must define the parameters and payment required to fulfil those parameters. Thus more conflict is born. People will squabble over how much care a child should receive and from who. 'Rights' expand to encompass propositions like a child has a right to have its mother at home when he or she gets home from school. Those who agree want the money to make this happen taken from those who do not agree. The only fair solution to this conflict is to leave the parent free to make their own decision about care. Free to make it and free to fund it.

There may be a role for government to play when the level of welfare a person needs is beyond a family's ability to provide, or there is no employment available for the primary carer. But some in society, including this group, expect far more. The continuance of the state as the be-all and end-all of welfare and well-being will only result in a further expansion of the sense of entitlement that has eroded family and individual responsibility. It is disappointing to see the churches join this cabal. It compromises their moral and intellectual authority.

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