Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Michael Bassett: Dealing with the underclass

The Bible tells us in several places that the poor will always be with us. It’s doubtful whether Jesus or any of the others who used that phrase ever imagined the numbers would be on today’s scale. Poorhouses, workhouses and charitable aid existed from early times. And then along came the welfare state with Dick Seddon then Mickey Savage pledging to guarantee better lives for the poor. What was on offer was a hand-up, not a hand-out. Walter Nash, Labour’s Finance minister to Savage and Peter Fraser made it clear that work was required from everyone if they were to improve their lives. Unemployment benefits weren’t designed to be permanent income for anyone except for the severely handicapped. There were to be no free lunches. As late as 1966 there were only 133 people in the whole of the country receiving an Unemployment Benefit, and 5,000 on Sickness Benefits.

Things started to change in the late 1960s. Maori had come to town and were separated from the extended families that traditionally assisted with child rearing; religion was fading, taking with it taboos on carefree sex; the number of babies born out of wedlock or long-term relationships crept up, despite the easy availability of contraception, notably the pill. In 1970 Keith Holyoake’s government established a Royal Commission into Social Security. Amongst other changes, it recommended what became the Domestic Purposes Benefit (DPB) that came into effect in 1974. With National’s agreement, the Third Labour government’s legislation meant that a single mother with a baby could receive a cash benefit. But she was expected to identify the father of her child so that he contributed to the care of his progeny. Debates on these matters were full of sentimental claptrap about how lives would be transformed by more tender loving care from the taxpayer. As I re-read the debates, they sound like an early version of Jacinda Ardern’s meaningless prattle.

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?

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


Anonymous said...

WOW That says it all...

What a Shocking Mess the Country is in

Fasten your seat belts..

Ray S said...

I was fully in accord with your article until I read this bit,

"I make no claim to be a policy expert, but I’m willing to give alternatives a go."

One of the reasons we are in such a mess is just that,"give it a go" does not work. All political parties have been guilty of such an approach.

Will we see any change with a new government? I have my doubts.

EP said...

Of course. Well said Michael. To some extent, all elections seem 'make or break', but this one has the very soul of the people at stake. How ignominious have we become as a nation of the aggrieved, the badly done by, the colonised, the racially and 'genderly' stigmatised - the ignorant, the criminal. the drug-addicted! My word we are better than this, and we jolly-well better demonstrate it with intelligence and determination come 14 October, or we deserve all we get!

mudbayripper said...

This commentary describes precisely how socialism (communism) destroys the human spirit.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, Michael. One wonders which party does have the guts to call it out and has the political clout; the already stated policies; some succession potential; and, the (claimed) resolve? I can think of only one, and it surely isn't headed by a former airline CEO, who seems content to sit on the fence with his purported 'Treaty partners' that claim to represent and be looking out for said underclass.

orowhana said...

no DPB without naming the father.
No benefit without vaccinations.
A Conservation Army not the Army doing Conservation.

Gaynor said...

I am not suggesting education has all the answers to this disaster but it is easier to work with small children's learning than trying to turn wayward solo mothers and negligent fathers around. The inter- generational welfare dependence has to be broken. I do completely accept your conclusions, Michael on the social welfare fiasco.
Our failure in the 3Rs this century is catastrophic. Our educational establishment would love to put all the blame put on poor parenting or social conditions rather than face up to admitting we have progressive methods and values that cause the failure. Marie Clay's reading method, for example, uses strategies that have the child deceptively, appearing as if they are reading well but they aren't at all. Unbelievably ,this vile deception has been going on for 40 years! Next month Emily Hanford, a journalist who has done a magnificent job exposing Clay's fraudulent method to the US public,is visiting NZ. I hope journalists here take note of her dedication to this extremely important issue.

Anonymous said...

Good article and the suggestion of serving in the Army is not a bad one.
Many first world countries still have National service. Think Singapore!
After two years you get a choice, stay in and get trained in something worthwhile, electronics, engineering etc. Be part of something that benefits yourself and the country.
Go on the dole, waste your life away watching TV and do nothing except whine about your circumstances.
Time to stop paying people to opt out of society and getting rewarded for nothing but bad behaviour.

Robert said...

Well said Michael, that we all take at least some responsibility for our life decisions, good or bad. And even today we discover how this new approach will work out...,a few "tear ways" on the roof of their secure facility, on one of the bleakest of days. I don't know quite why they took that decision, but they got lots of publicity and Kentucky Fries used rather than cold water hoses to entice them down.
What a generous bunch we taxpayers are? Sarcasm of course.