Saturday, June 26, 2021

Michael Bassett: Helping the Underclass and Ourselves at the Same Time

Two bits of socio-economic news this last week collided. The first was that as many as 20% of Maori youth are unemployed, most of them on benefits. The second was the serious shortage of workers that is putting stress on horticulture and business owners for whom temporary workers from overseas have been doing the necessary work in recent years.

Limiting the number of imported workers is hindering our economic recovery from the pandemic. The government meantime seems content to keep the immigration doors nearly closed, believing that employers will be forced to lift wages for low-skilled jobs. Ministers naively hope that that will attract the unemployed to work. However, the government is bumping up benefits big time, meaning that many in the private sector can’t out-pay the state. Firms will probably go under. It’s a case of ill-considered ideology trumping common sense, yet again.

Two socio-economic problems need dealing with in this context. Horticulture and business would happily settle for a short-term fix: opening the immigration gates and going back to a migrant workforce that sustained them over recent years. But this temporary relief overlooks the fact that seasonal workers don’t take trade apprenticeships to train in the shortage areas that have developed over the last few decades. Carpenters, plumbers and other tradies are in hot demand, especially with the pressures of new house construction.

And what of the unemployed themselves? We need to get to grips with the growth of inter-generational welfare that is expanding under this government, and will escalate as higher benefits make the unemployment choice even more attractive to them. Having large numbers of young people unemployed has never been a good idea. The old saying that the Devil finds work for idle hands has always applied. Unemployed young from dysfunctional families where domestic violence is steadily rising are easily enticed into gangs, drugs, and other criminal activity. They get stuck in a negative cycle that ruins their lives, while it keeps the Police and the Justice systems busy. In their turn, they corrupt and destroy their own children. With serious welfare problems now fifty years old, a cure won’t be easy. But in the absence of any sensible policies emerging from Jacinda’s government, there is one idea that offers some hope.

In the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s President Franklin Roosevelt pulled together the two daily realities of unemployment and a need for urgent work on conservation into an extremely successful scheme known as the Civilian Conservation Corps. It conscripted young people into training schemes run in conjunction with the army and the Forest Service. Huge numbers of young Americans were introduced by the CCC to disciplined learning. They worked on farms, forests, soil erosion schemes, drought relief, and acquired skills that were eventually used in many other areas of their lives. Many apprenticeship schemes emerged out of the CCC experience.

Aspects of our Compulsory Military Training scheme in the 1950s were designed to imbue youth with a sense of pride, discipline and self-worth. In the early 1970s Prime Minister Norman Kirk, whom Jacinda Ardern says she admires, was captivated by the CCC idea. Involving the armed forces in training schemes as well as their mandated roles to preserve national security appealed to him, but hopes of implementation died with him. In the mid 1980s Frank Corner’s Defence Enquiry revealed that large numbers of Kiwis supported some form of Defence involvement in skills training to combat anti-social behaviour, poor self-esteem, and lack of parental guidance. The Army responded with costings about what would be needed for it to undertake an expansion of its role. But nothing came of what, in my view, is a project that could get “the nephs off the couch”, to use Shane Jones’ phrase. Charter schools, introduced under the last government, proved their worth and ought to be expanded, but they should be linked up with some form of post-school training opportunities that could pull many of the young and rudderless into a form of constructive, socially positive behaviour.

It’s a challenge, and it won’t be cheap, but it could produce a significant rise in the number of the tradies, forestry and seasonal workers we need, while reducing the compounding effects of multi-generational welfare which destroys young lives. To date, none of the policies of this government appears to have any chance of solving the needs of business, let alone getting nephs off the couch, improving their life chances, or building their self-respect.

Historian Michael Bassett, a Minister in the Fourth Labour Government, blogs HERE.

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