Bennett’s quiet welfare revolution

OPENING SALVO Social Development Minister Paula Bennett's “radical shift” is under way. Hardly anyone has noticed. UPDATED


It’s incredible it hasn’t been fixed before.

This week, social development minister Paula Bennett announced people with outstanding arrest warrants must turn themselves in or lose their benefits.

Apparently, over half of those on the run are beneficiaries –an extraordinary 8200 fugitives being funded by the state.

The policy was promised in National’s 2011 manifesto and reflects the philosophy of Paula Rebstock’s Welfare Working Group report.

That report was about the reciprocal responsibilities of government, beneficiaries, employers, unions, iwis and families.

I described it as challenging but commonsensical, tough-minded yet kind.

It argued that no matter how generous the welfare state, those in long-term contact with it would always be at the bottom of the heap.  The only way to truly assist them is to get them off it.

The report demanded that the government treat beneficiaries as human beings and citizens, not numbers on a data file.

To that end, it urged the government to dramatically improve its performance in identifying those most likely to become trapped in welfare, then invest in them before they do.  ACC’s cost-up-front, early intervention model was seen as a potential blueprint.

At the same time, Ms Rebstock said beneficiaries themselves must accept the responsibilities of citizenship.

Taking a benefit while running from the cops isn’t consistent with that.  Even Lord Lucan had enough integrity not to go on the dole.

Encouragingly mixed
Ms Rebstock’s team half-expected their work would go the way of Don Brash’s 2025 Taskforce, the Tax Working Group’s capital gains tax or the Savings Working Group’s 17.5% GST.

The government would be too afraid to do anything that might upset anyone, anywhere.

The initial response, however, was encouragingly mixed.

Ms Bennett said she needed to “take time” and “keep talking”.  But she also said the government accepted “a radical shift is needed”.

In retrospect, both themes were true. 

Ms Bennett had no intention of a boots-and-all, December 19, 1990, approach.  Nor, however, was she going to be a mere safe pair of hands.

As she promised, she took time, kept talking and – just as the government did over the SOE share floats – put her major policy proposals in her election manifesto and won a mandate.

Since the Rebstock report, Ms Bennett has announced that a crack down on beneficiaries taking overseas holidays has tripled the number caught committing that fraud.

Sole parents with children aged over five are expected to seek part-time work, and full-time work when the children turn 14.  The previous rule was 18.

Work-ready people face benefit cuts if they refuse to apply for jobs requiring mandatory drug-testing.

Similar tough policies are lined up for announcement.  The next is likely to be requiring beneficiaries to ensure their children are in early childhood education or school.

Again, it’s incredible that no previous welfare minister, not even Jenny Shipley or Roger Sowry, ever got around to fixing this sort of thing.

Rebstock Overlord
More important, though, are Ms Bennett’s positive initiatives.

Picking up on Ms Rebstock’s idea of a cost-up-front, early intervention model, Ms Bennett is shifting spending towards those most likely to become trapped in long-term dependency, well before they do.

According to the social workers, such people can be identified within weeks of first signing up for welfare.  Ms Bennett will spend whatever it takes to help them get free as soon as possible, both to save them from the misery of long-term dependency and the taxpayer from the cost of it.

Work and Income and the education sector now share information to identify the school leavers most likely to go straight on the dole.

So-called Youth Service Providers now help young sole parents learn to manage their finances, pay essential costs like rent and electricity directly, while the government will pay for long-acting contraception for those who want it.

The providers are also financially incentivised to get young people into work, education and training.  The government guarantees to meet childcare costs so young parents aren’t prevented from studying.

Perhaps most important, Ms Bennett has appointed none other than Ms Rebstock to sit over the top, as chair of the Work and Income board, overseeing the new investment approach and ensuring the bureaucracy delivers.

Ms Bennett’s “radical shift” is underway and hardly anyone has noticed.

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