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    Letter No.57
    27 March, 1997

    Beyond Poverty and Dependency
    an essential summary
    edited by The Jobs Letter

    In this special feature, The Jobs Letter presents edited highlights from several papers to the Beyond Poverty conference at Massey University, Albany, and the Beyond Dependence conference at the Sheraton Hotel, Auckland .

    Bettina Cass
    Bettina Cass is the Professor of Sociology and Social Policy and Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sydney.

  • The very notion of 'dependency' denies human interdependence, social reciprocity and the cross-community and life-cycle interdependencies which are the basis of respect for human dignity and for democratic institutions of a civil society. And the concept of 'dependency' is even more insupportable and unconscionable in advanced industrial societies, increasingly characterised since the mid 1970s by very high levels of unemployment and long-term unemployment (compared to the first three decades of the post-war period), and with the constant marginalisation of unemployed and disadvantaged population groups from full social and economic participation.

    Rather than focusing on 'dependency', which turns attention to the social and individual consequences of economic and labour market transformations, and "individualises" what is essentially a structural economic and political issue ... we should turn instead to the question of unemployment and its consequences.

  • Social citizenship rights in the welfare states of advanced industrialised countries were based on the promise of combinations of secure and adequately renumerated employment and other forms of social protection through tax/benefit systems. The failure to acknowledge this premise results in viewing people who rely on social security or who do not participate in paid employment as being dependent and a drain on the resources generated by economically active citizens.

    This is a denial of mutuality and interdependence. The objective of welfare states was to create a system of recognised interdependencies, of social rights and responsibilities necessary to reduce market-driven inequalities, and to safeguard human dignity and freedom.

    Source -- Bettina Cass : "Questioning the Very Idea of Dependency Public policy responses to unemployment and marginalisation" Paper to Beyond Dependency International Conference, Sheraton Hotel, Auckland, 16-19 March 1997.

    Mike O'Brien
    Mike O'Brien is a lecturer in Social Policy and Social Work at Massey University, Albany, Auckland.

  • Dependency has been one of the dominant themes in many of the debates about the welfare state and social policy in the last five years or so. While this theme has been drawn on throughout many areas of social policy provision and services, the most extensive debates --and the most trenchant use of the term -- has been reserved for the poor, or more precisely a particular group of the poor, namely social security beneficiaries.

    The term has almost universally carried with it an implicit and explicit criticism of beneficiaries themselves and of their reliance on the state for their income support. That criticism has been focused especially strongly on sole parents and on the unemployed in particular, and to a slightly lesser extent on those receiving sickness benefit.

    The term 'dependent' has seldom been used in relation to widows benefit, invalids benefit and superannuation recipients. This selective use of the term results from the ways in which the critique of `dependency' is linked to longstanding issues of deserving and undeserving poor.

  • It is not even all recipients of state support who are the subject of criticism for their alleged dependence. For example, those in paid work who receive Family Support to supplement their inadequate income levels are not criticised because of their dependence. Nor are the elderly who rely on National Superannuation for their income - for many elderly this is the only source of income as it is for sole parents and the unemployed.

  • 'Dependence' received very little attention as a significant question in the 1988 Royal Commission on Social Policy in the papers on Income Maintenance prepared by the Commission. However, by 1991 the position had changed, with dependence now becoming a major basis of the rationale used to justify the benefit cuts and other changes initiated that year.

    It is worth noting that the Department of Social Welfare and its policy agency, the Social Policy Agency did not see 'dependence' as a major issue in its briefing to the incoming government in 1993. 'Dependence' was not mentioned as a problem facing either the Department or the Income Support Service. However, by 1996, it had become a central theme for all the major political parties in their election manifestos of that year.

    The central importance which dependency had achieved in the policy political language by that time is reflected in four recent documents, the Tax Reduction and Social Policy Bill of 1996, in Investing in People and in the Strategic Results Areas for the Public Sector 1994-1997 and the Strategic Directions produced for the incoming government in 1996. In Strategic Directions, between pages 17 and 32 where the background papers on income support are written, the terms 'dependent' or 'dependency' or 'self-reliant/self-reliance' are used 45 times!

  • The term 'dependence' is essentially an ideological concept, not a descriptive one, and its use reflects particular ideological constructs, constructs which advance particular interests in the society. The use of the term is very selective in the particular ways in which it has been used, focusing on the 'dependency' of some and ignoring a range of other areas of human life in which relationships of dependency also operate.

  • Dependence is defined and presented as a trait of individual behaviour. It is separated from the wider economic and social context which provides a much more comprehensive and valid approach to the lives and experiences of beneficiaries and the low paid.

    Thus, the emphasis is on how beneficiaries fail to take the work and life chances to which they are entitled while the lack of job opportunities at appropriate wages and working conditions is ignored. The emphasis is placed on the obligations of the beneficiary rather than on the rights of the citizen. The right to income is replaced by such eighteenth century notions as an emphasis on charity, the reinforcement of stigma and the strengthening of the distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor.

  • There is another element of the incentive approach to 'the problem of dependence' : the contrast between the negative sanctions used with the poor and the positive sanctions used with the rest of the community. The use of such measures as mandatory interviews, compulsory work or training with the punishment of the loss of part of the benefit is a good example of the way in which the negative sanctions are applied to the poor.

    This can be contrasted with the rationale for the tax cuts where the argument is that if the better off have more money in their hand this will alter their behaviour, while with the poor changes in behaviour occur if they have less money. Indeed, in the Ministerial Briefing Papers of 1996 the Department of Social Welfare identifies what it calls a 'hassling' approach as one of the ways in which policy might be developed to move beneficiaries from 'dependence' to 'independence'.

  • Beneficiaries, it is argued, constitute a separate culture, sometimes referred to as an underclass, with a different set of values and beliefs from the values and beliefs that exist in the society at large. 'Dependence' is a state that is enjoyed and relished. It is an argument which was reflected, for example, in the recent comment from the Director-General of Social Welfare with her claim that five year olds were entering school looking forward to life on social security benefit as their occupational aspiration. Again, there is a significant body of evidence that refutes this claim. There is no evidence that beneficiaries have a value and belief system which separates them off from the rest of the society. Such an assumption has a long pedigree, going back to much of the Poor Law legislation of last century. A recent study specifically set out to examine the values of beneficiaries and compared these with the values of those in low paid work (Dean and Taylor-Gooby, 1992). A major finding of significance to this debate is that the values of beneficiaries in terms of their attachment to work were stronger than those in paid work, even when their chances of work were not high. In other words, rather than exhibiting different values, they were reflecting very traditional values about the importance of paid work. They had not rejected it, as the critics had claimed.

  • Certainly the evidence from this work of Dean and Taylor-Gooby is entirely consistent with the qualitative evidence in the New Zealand literature. That evidence provides no support at all for the claim that beneficiaries are lazing around idling the time away, teaching their children to follow them into the next generation. Indeed, all the evidence is that there is strong push to move from benefit.

    What is missing is not the motivation (as the dependency critics argue) but the opportunity that is the lack of reliable employment at a reasonable and reliable level of income, supported by the other services that are required such as child care and good quality training opportunities. Without ensuring that those exist and are maintained, the poverty of social security will be swapped for the poverty and uncertainty of inadequate wages - dependency will be greater but of course the state will be out of the picture.

  • So what is the dependence critique based on? In brief, it is based on the expression of a set of ideological beliefs which emphasise that we are autonomous individuals who have no rights, only obligations. Second, it is based on identifying particular forms of dependence as good and bad and punishing bad dependence (that is, dependence of particular groups on the state). Third, it reinforces the power of the powerful at the expense of the powerless.

    Fourth, it operates as if poverty does not exist and places the responsibility for alleviating poverty on the individual and the family, irrespective of the circumstances of the individual or the family. Fifth, it leads to policy responses and legislative and administrative measures that are based on unsubstantiated assumptions, not on the realities of the lives of beneficiaries and the poor.

    Source -- Mike O'Brien: Paper to Beyond Poverty Conference, Auckland, 14-16 March 1997. Full paper from Mike O'Brien email: email:

    John Tomlinson
    John Tomlinson is a lecturer at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia.

  • Governments, conservatives and economic fundamentalists are unified in their use of dependency rhetoric to reinforce the subordination and marginalisation of welfare recipients. They happily suggest the poor are dependent without asking why, or what 'dependency' means. They happily ignore the fact that it is the failure of government to provide low income earners with a basic income which causes their 'dependence'. People need an income to survive, and if it cannot be obtained through paid labour then it is hardly surprising they rely upon the income support provided by the state.

  • If dependence was really the problem then dependency could be abolished by introducing a universal income guarantee for all permanent residents of a country. But for governments, conservatives and economic fundamentalists, dependency is the solution rather than the problem. These people believe that if they constantly harp about dependency then they increase the stigma associated with income support receipt, thereby limiting outcomes and reinforcing recipients' need to express gratitude.

  • The current fixation of both the NZ and Australian governments to privatise as much as they can of nationally provided services, including income support mechanisms, is an attempt to return those who need to call on others for support to a more personal responsibility and a more direct relationship with the dispensers of charity (church/private/voluntary) and no doubt a more intense shame.

    What, if any, form of agency accountability is put in place ... it will not be consistent across the nation, will frequently be arbitrary, rarely committed to written form, difficult to challenge and oozing sanctimonious parsimony.

    Source -- John Tomlinson: "There but for the grace of wealth go I" Paper to Beyond Poverty Conference. Full paper from John Tomlinson email:

    Garth Nowland-Foreman
    Garth Nowland-Foreman is a consultant in social policy and voluntary organisations, based in Christchurch.

  • The real social problem affecting New Zealanders today is not 'dependency' or a 'welfare attitude'. The real social problems are poverty, exclusion, growing inequality and divisions, unemployment and lack of opportunities to participate and belong.

    We cannot solve great social policies or even make good social policy unless we get the question right - unless we are asking the right question and have a good understanding of what is actually going on in our society. Otherwise we will be distracted by tired and irrelevant social policy fads imported from other countries where they have often even failed on their home ground.

  • For those whom 'benefit dependency' is a problem, what do they mean? In the welfare debate usually two related but very different concepts are sometimes conflated and confused. The first is sometimes called 'intergenerational dependency' and involves what may be called a concern about a 'welfare mentality' - for example, the notion that thousands of 5 year olds are starting school with no other ambition in life than to have a life on benefits because they have been brought up by parents who have always been on benefits.

    The second way in which the term benefit dependency is used concerns the growth in reliance on welfare benefits. The first is probably a myth or at least grossly over-stated, and the second may be true but is grossly misleading.

    We are reminded time and time again that one in four children are brought up in families where no-one has a job. By 1996, 21% of working age people were reliant on benefits (up from 8% in 1985). So we are told in horrified tones by one columnist: "This means that for every four people in work there is one of working age living off their wages." It almost sounds like it is feared this infectious welfare dependency is being passed on from generation to generation. You could be forgiven for believing that society may be breeding a whole generation of welfare 'dependents'.

  • What are the facts behind the hysteria? The concept of intergenerational welfare dependency in many respects has been imported from the US welfare system. Some very interesting US research actually looked at what was happening with welfare use across the generations in American households. Based on a national survey of 13,000, the research found: only 25% of recent welfare recipients said their parents had ever used welfare - 75% had not; only 19% of current welfare recipients grew up in households that regularly (on more than four occasions) used welfare - more than 80% had not; and only 5% of all welfare recipients were regular welfare users who also grew up in households where parents were regular welfare users - 95% were not.

    Talk about poor targeting, if people are suggesting we should redesign the whole welfare system to address an issue that may not effect 95 per cent of the people reliant on welfare!

  • Not only is this so-called "massive" problem probably very small, but its causes are almost certainly misrepresented. The same research did find that children raised in families using what the American's call 'public assistance' were more likely to use welfare as adults when compared to those growing up in non-welfare households. However the connection between childhood and adult welfare use was found to have little to do with welfare use in itself. Instead it had to do with poverty. If parents have low incomes, their children have less opportunities and less resources. The research shows that this translates into less education, less job skills and therefore an increased chance of needing welfare assistance as adults.

    Poverty rather than welfare dependency seems to be the real culprit. This is a crucial point, because if poverty is the problem, then even if policies are successful in shifting people from poverty level benefits to poverty level wages, it will not break the so-called intergenerational dependency cycle.

  • We need to re-elevate creating real employment opportunities as a key goal of public policy. We should be wary about buying in too quickly to the pessimism and complacency being peddled by some sections of both the left and the right, to accepting artifacts like 5 or 6% at the 'natural' level of unemployment. Some continuing healthy scepticism is required.

  • We need to better share the paid employment that is available, for example, reducing the 'all or nothing' barriers to employment, developing 'sabbaticals' that can open up new opportunities for unemployed people (and a change for employed people), new and more flexible options for phased retirement across a wide range of occupational groups, a new emphasis on lifelong learning with multiple and flexible entry or re-entry points.

  • We need to reform our major institutions (income support, tax, industrial relations, training and education, etc) to better reflect the new social and economic realities, and in particular address the false dichotomies between work and welfare, between work and family, between fulltime secure and part-time marginal jobs, between fulltime caring and work. With the increased likelihood of moving in and out of many jobs over a life time, with increased 'flexibility' and unreliability in the labour market, we need an income support system that is even more secure and reliable than ever before.

  • We need to better share the unpaid household, caring and community work. Men have some important work to do here, as fathers and brothers and sons, as carers and community activists and neighbours. Not just to relieve the 'burden' on women, but also to help us get our lives back into better balance - by discovering what we can gain from caring and community involvement. This is not just a call to do more, but also a call to do less.

  • Not only are Maori (along with Pacific Islanders) over-represented among the poor, the unemployed and the marginalised, but we cannot address a better balance in society without addressing the serious dispossession of Maori that has occurred over the past century and a half in Aotearoa/New Zealand.

    We need to be more vigorous in promoting the need for publicly funded, high quality, reliable community services for the new social realities. We should not be apologetic about the role that local economic development can play not just child care (though that will be really important) but also services for older people, people with disabilities, sick care and many other facilities that community and voluntary organisations can also be well-placed to provide.

  • We need to tackle the financing issues. You can't keep cutting back on private transfers and then cut back on public transfers at the same time. But we may also need to look for creative new measures (like the Tobin tax to capture the international flight of speculative money, or inheritance taxes ear-marked to pay for improved community care services for elderly people and people with disabilities).

  • Finally, globalisation is a powerful force - but national governments can make a difference. There are political choices we can make - the myth of TINA (there is no alternative) must not go unchallenged. And the community sector needs to internationalise as well. We can't remain trapped in our own national borders and cope with these powerful international forces that are shaping our economies and our societies.

    Source -- Garth Nowland-Foreman : "The future of work, poverty and dependency in a changing world - its the opportunities stupid!" Paper to Beyond Poverty Conference. Full paper from Garth Nowland-Foreman at 57a Cashmere Road, Otautahi/Christchurch email:

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