Tamihere on Welfare
"The Reform of Welfare and the Rebuilding of
Community" by Hon. John Tamihere, speech prepared for the
Knowledge Wave forum, Auckland 21 February 2003
"The Reform of Welfare and the Rebuilding of Community" by Hon. John Tamihere, speech prepared for the Knowledge Wave forum, Auckland 21 February 2003
Now is the time for welfare reform and the rebuilding of our communities. If we want to strive for better living conditions and higher economic performance we must allow communities to take back their ability to be responsible for themselves, to manage themselves, and to grow a work ethic, commitment, and responsibility, themselves.
Too often we only consider welfare reform when the fiscal and economic conditions dictate reductions in government spending. This inevitably coincides with times when the need for welfare is at its highest.
The main thesis of my discussion is that welfare delivered by Government monopoly must be challenged at the very best of times. Currently unemployment is at 4.9% - the lowest rate since March 1988. The economy is growing strongly and government revenues are strong. Now is the best time to have a serious look at welfare.
In this speech I outline an approach to such reform, based on challenging the monopoly of the state in providing welfare. There is clear and unchallenged evidence that decentralised delivery of government programmes works effectively. We talk of public/private sector joint ventures and relationships in commercial fields but we refuse to acknowledge their potential in social policy areas. This has to change.
Too often discussions about welfare get caught up in tired debates about Left and Right wing approaches. There are three problems with this.
First, it simply doesn't get us very far and distracts us from the real debate on the practical solutions that we so clearly need.
The Right has grown comfortable with its welfare bashing politics, knowing that it plays well in parts of the electorate. The Left has grown comfortable with its traditional approach, knowing that it can clear its conscience by further increasing the material gifts of government. The electorate has grown comfortable with the geographic concentration of welfare dependency, knowing that this separates well-to-do suburbs from the poor. The corporate sector and other charitable sources have grown comfortable with the problem, knowing that they can write their welfare cheques and then wipe their hands. The media has grown comfortable with welfare dependency, knowing that it helps to generate sensational news. Welfare bureaucracies know that the easiest clients to serve are those whose circumstances and prospects never change.
About the only people who are not comfortable with this well-worn debate are the welfare dependent. They need us to move beyond our comfort zone and look for positive solutions.
The big mistake the Right makes with welfare dependency is that it simply sees it as a matter of rational choices. If we remove the ability to `choose' to receive benefits, the problem of welfare is also removed. The Left sees welfare dependency as a matter of financial position. If the material conditions of those on welfare are improved, the problem is also rectified. This approach is just as misguided. Even though the Left has always expressed its concern for disadvantaged people, it has neglected the importance of social relationships. It has positioned welfare policy solely as a relationship between the state and its citizens. Welfare dependency is a problem in the relationship between people. Dependency drains away the social benefits of self-esteem and mutual recognition. Until this problem is addressed, it is not possible to sustain rational judgements or improved material conditions within welfare communities.
The lazy and easy style of labelling everybody, left or right, must surely be challenged, as we focus on achieving sustainable and enduring outcomes in terms of social policy.
The solutions to state dependency are caught within a rich matrix of our very recent history and the significant impact that technology change and massive trade liberalisation have had on the economy.
In 1972 unemployment peaked at 350 persons. The Labour party was able to turn this into an election issue. At the same time New Zealand was starting its nationhood journey. Our hand was forced by the decision of the United Kingdom to join the European Economic Community in 1973. We were further jolted by the oil shocks of 1973 and had to start a new destiny in the South Pacific. In 1975 we commenced an exciting process of reconciliation with the enactment of the Treaty of Waitangi Act.
The 1980s continued the turbulence of the 1970s with major economic upheaval and a redefinition of the role of the state in the economy. Not the least of these was the restructuring of huge government employment machines such as the railways, the Post Office and the Department of Works.
New Zealand's society was turned on its head. We saw the demise of huge systems and structures that used to provide security, solace and direction. In addition to the governmental and economic changes, we have seen the "baby boomers" fleeing from mainstream churches. We have also experienced a significant decline in participation in our sports clubs.
These changes have fundamentally undermined the core assumptions of the welfare state. We need to make sure our welfare system is well adapted to meeting these massive societal changes.
While I might not be proud of these negative indices, I am unshakable in my experience and belief that the latent, dynamic, innate potential of our people is being suppressed. A culture that, 30 years ago, was proud of the fact that we, the indigenous folk, had the highest rates of employment, now walk around as a subculture of ethnically identifiable failures.
It is clear that our potentials can never be realised or released by an all knowing, all caring centralised bureaucracy called the Ministry of Social Development.
The Ministry of Social Development must be decentralised, funding and all. We must be allowed to take responsibility for ourselves. Welfare as presently practiced in this country literally kills us with kindness.
To accelerate Maori access and participation to opportunities to the extent that they can surf the knowledge wave rather than being hammered into the rocks will require a number of policy shifts based on decentralisation of authority and funding into the local communities.
Unleashing Maori communities from state dependency will mean ensuring that they take responsibility for breaking that dependency. The amount of lost opportunity as Maori work through their grievance resolutions with the Crown has been incalculable. The Treaty is not a panacea for Mäori success, or participation in any new economy. We must throw off victim hood and become beacons for nationhood.
For example, there are 60,000 state house rentals. If you are lucky enough to be a resident in this rental regime you pay 25% of your gross income into Housing New Zealand. 76% of all state house tenants are beneficiaries' dependent on the state for their total income. A further 11% of state house tenants receive some form of income supplement acknowledging that their employment income requires some form of top up.
Despite significant funding being available 44% of Maori children under the age of five do not attend pre-school situations. As a result they start primary school behind and catching up is very difficult, particularly if they come from poor communities, poorer families and poorer parenting.
At the other end of process, data from the 1999 Census of Prison Inmates tell us that 50% of inmates were dependent on benefits prior to entering prison. On this basis we can see much of the Corrections budget as part of the `cost of the system.' Surely we need to find better ways of spending this money so that people are contributing in their communities rather that drawing their benefit via corrections.
Failure by state agencies to solve the problems of poverty and welfare dependency actually results in the allocation of greater resources to those agencies when they have already proven themselves poorly adapted to solving the problems.
Despite all the spending and `management' of beneficiaries occurring under these programmes, it is clear that the problems facing our communities are not being alleviated.
As a Cabinet Minister and MP for the Mäori populations in the Auckland region, I believe there are solutions to these problems.
The starting point must be to ensure that for each beneficiary household there is one non-Government dominant caseload manager ensuring that the benefit is paid specifically to achieve shelter, food and electricity and warmth into each one of these beneficiary households. This can be accommodated by way of a budget plan formed and consented to by the beneficiary family and the dominant caregiver.
Once the beneficiaries' entitlements have been assessed and secured from MSD they would be paid into a budget holding trust account administered by the dominant caseload manager. Payments that had been consented to would be automatically paid to the mortgage or the landlord whoever that might be. Payments would be made on behalf of the beneficiaries for electricity and an agreed food supply of agreed items. Any residual money left over from the benefit would then be transferred into the beneficiaries' private bank account to be used for discretionary spending.
Waking up beneficiaries to the power of budgeting, to the strength of cooperating and to thinking medium to long term is a huge leap for them. It is also essential to setting both individual beneficiaries and their communities on the road to recovery.
Decentralisation and devolution into a community based accountable, transparent and open non-government organisation will make welfare work. It will work in a fiscally prudent way and a number of families will be able to trade upward and onward.
We know that this allegation does not hold water and is now no longer credible. We know this because bit by bit we can build up systems and infrastructures in poor communities, or for that matter any community, as they move to provide a range of services that are unbundled from mainstream bureaucracies. Under no circumstances do we need to practice devolution and decentralisation by the `big bang theory' and in fact our communities do not desire that.
The mutual obligations I am talking about are those that flow from the benefits being received. For example, at this stage we have not made it clear that this housing entitlement is not a lifetime entitlement with rights of succession to your family, but is rather a respite facility. We need to ensure that those who are afforded a state house acknowledge the need to work towards moving into another form of housing. Preferably a house they own. In early childhood education, one cannot jump to a conclusion that a parent will take their child to an early childhood education centre; they must be mentored even in this relatively simple task.
Currently funds exist for a range of alcohol, drug and gambling addiction programmes as well as for second chance training and education. As a consequence, the adult or adults in this housing situation can also be provided with a pathway out of their difficulties. With stable housing and other basics such as electricity and basic food provided, the chance of success in such programmes is much higher. However, we must move beyond seeing these programmes as optional extras. If we are to provide a range of benefits, we should expect participation in these kind of programmes.
Source "The Reform Of Welfare And The Rebuilding Of Community" by Hon. John Tamihere, speech prepared for the Knowledge Wave forum, Auckland 21 February 2003