Welfare’s role in an egalitarian society
Fri 8 Jun 2012 by Gareth Kiernan in Government

One of my colleagues and I were chatting a few weeks ago about our childhoods when I commented that I’d had more than my fair share of low-quality sausages and mince while growing up. My colleague was surprised to find that I came from a poor family. But having a solo mum for the first six years of my life, and then growing up through the high-unemployment years of the late 1980s and early 1990s, meant that welfare payments were often an important income source for my family.

Twenty years later, I’d consider myself as having been successful through my time at university and in my professional career. In my view, these outcomes are a reflection of the egalitarian nature of New Zealand society. A low socioeconomic status does not provide an impenetrable impediment to future success.

My dictionary defines egalitarianism as “the principle of equal rights and opportunities for all”. Part of New Zealand’s egalitarian ethos probably stems from this country’s pioneer history, which rejected the class system that was prevalent in Britain. But the egalitarianism also reflects the history of government policy in this country, with 1930s New Zealand one of the early examples of a welfare state.

Judging the appropriate level of welfare assistance or income redistribution for society is an endless source of political debate. But in my view, the last Labour government confused egalitarian ideals with less legitimate aspirations towards equality. Egalitarianism promotes equality of opportunity as opposed to equality of outcome.

Don’t get me wrong – I find it difficult to comprehend how anyone can make ends meet on a welfare benefit. But the government also can’t ignore the fact that its policies play an important role in influencing and determining people’s choices. Taking equality to its extreme conclusion removes any incentive for people to better themselves and is ultimately untenable – witness the failure of communism.

Welfare is ultimately a safety net for people who have had bad luck, made bad choices, or faced some combination of the two. In life, not everything we attempt goes according to plan. But the welfare system should not be structured so that it encourages further bad choices. And this aspect of the welfare system is what the government was looking to improve when it recently raised the issue of contraception for women on the DPB.

Welfare advocates may not like to admit it, but being a career beneficiary seems to be a valid lifestyle choice for some people. A Fairfax interview with a bunch of young parents in Huntly included the quote that “I heard you crack it on the benefit if you have babies.” This attitude is anathema to your average person who is working hard to get ahead and simply sees long-term beneficiaries as “bludgers”.

It seems that, at least for some people, the government needs to structure welfare policy to provide an incentive for beneficiaries not to simply hang around on the benefit sucking up the government’s hand-outs. Free contraception has been mooted as one possible solution, while compulsory contraception would take things a step further. If it is felt that compulsory contraception impinges people’s civil liberties, then the government could potentially impose limitations around the length of time that the DPB is available for, require beneficiaries to be available for work (contingent on the age of the child), or financially discourage solo mothers from having further children while on the benefit.

To many readers, financial disincentives along the lines of those listed above might sound excessively punitive. Penalising those who have made repeated bad choices, the parents, may seem reasonable to many people. But effectively penalising the children, who are in no way responsible for their own situation, seems patently unfair. Indeed, financial disincentives for beneficiaries risk locking the children into a cycle of poverty, undermining the equality of opportunity for those children and striking at the heart of New Zealand’s egalitarian ethos. These complexities mean it is not simple to get welfare policy settings right.

If we’re totally honest, these negative measures to change people’s behaviour only deal with the symptoms of the problem, not the cause. Having another child every few years to keep getting government money is not a valid lifestyle choice, except for people who see little hope for the future and feel powerless to improve their situation.

Education has a key role to play in empowering people to improve their wellbeing. Next week I’ll look at the role that education has to play in reducing poverty, particularly from an intergenerational perspective.

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