It was bullswool, of course. Human behaviour always follows incentives, and in 1974 they pointed towards climbing onto the gravy train of “free” money from the taxpayer. The number of recipients of DPBs rose from 4,000 in 1974 to 56,500 in 1985, to 113,000 in 1998. By the turn of the century, Unemployment Benefits were being paid to 154,000, Sickness Benefits to 33,000, and Invalids’ Benefits to another 50,000. According to one estimate, about 20% of New Zealand’s people of working age were now on a Social Welfare benefit of some kind. A whole industry has formed up around welfare led by the likes of the Child Poverty Action Group and its membership of hopeful social workers and wonky economists. The cost of it all to the taxpayer is through the roof, while the bleats for yet more assistance are deafening. The homilies preached by Savage, Nash and Sir Apirana Ngata about the need to work in order to receive payments had long been forgotten. More and more partners of single women receiving the DPB fell behind with their payments towards the care of their children. The government kidded itself that receipt of money under the name of an Unemployment Benefit was not a permanent state of affairs, and renamed it the Jobseekers’ Benefit, which it no longer was.
All sorts of additional social problems followed the easy money gravy train for what was becoming a rapidly ballooning underclass. A Women’s Refuge Movement got underway with 50% of the users being Maori women. Male partners made up more than 70% of their abusers. Mum’s new de facto was too frequently a threat to her children. With nobody working in many households, children grew up in environments without role models except the occasional gang thug. School attendance became spasmodic for many children, meaning that educational achievement levels amongst the mushrooming underclass steadily fell away.
Much of this is obvious to anyone thinking seriously about New Zealand’s future. But who is promising to do anything meaningful to turn things around? After half a century of pouring easy money over beneficiaries we are faced with “homes” where children are not only hungry but terrified much of the time. There are declining numbers in prisons, many more gangs, rampant ram raiding, and lower achievement levels at every level of the educational system. This Labour government displays no alternative but to pour good money after bad. Carmel Sepuloni seems totally without understanding or empathy for the children being born into this serpents’ den. She has pushed up basic benefits to levels that mean no one in today’s underclass can improve their incomes by working. Having another baby is more lucrative. And she abolished the requirement for a DPB recipient to name the father of her children. That won't make much difference anyway. As it is around 34,000 fathers pay less than $3 a day to support their children (probably from their own benefit). Amongst the underclass a tomcat’s licence has been in force for many years.
How to solve all this? First is to turn off the tap. Every applicant for a DPB has to be informed that the benefit is strictly time-limited, and there will be no pay increase for a second or third child. At the initial point of registration for a benefit, free contraceptives should be provided. There will be accidents, of course, and this might lead to a temporary spike in the number of abortions. But the message will sink in. Secondly, how to deal with the huge and growing underclass already in existence. Bill English pioneered a rather laborious way of dealing with individual families, one at a time. It showed signs of working, but Jacinda Ardern arrogantly flicked it away. Young people will need to be provided with discipline, education and job training. Experience in the Army worked during the Great Depression in the United States and has done much for some Maori youth here. It can be financed by the money saved from current lavish welfare top-ups. Conservation projects could also use assistance and give the participants some pride in their achievements.
I make no claim to be a policy expert, but I’m willing to give alternatives a go. Half a century of shallow thinking and carelessness has delivered us a mountainous problem which must be climbed. Doing nothing but encourage it to grow yet higher isn’t a long-term solution. Which political party has the intestinal fortitude to face up to this issue?