Back to work, report urges

Paula Rebstock
Paula Rebstock
About 300,000 welfare beneficiaries who are judged to be capable of work will face a day of reckoning tomorrow when the Government receives a report that recommends they be forced to look for jobs.

A welfare working group chaired by economist Paula Rebstock is poised to recommend a package of radical changes which Ms Rebstock says will be "more extensive than what most have ever done in a one-off reform".

The report is due to be released at noon.

Former Green MP Sue Bradford, who now leads a new group called Auckland Action Against Poverty, said the report was shaping up to make the 1991 benefit cuts look like "chicken feed".

The report's major thrust is expected to extend the obligation to look for paid work to the vast majority of beneficiaries between 18 and 64.

Ms Rebstock said yesterday only a third of the 352,700 working-age beneficiaries were now required to look for work - all 67,000 on unemployment benefits, 43,000 sole parents with no children under age 6 and, from this May, 9000 sickness beneficiaries assessed as being able to work at least 15 hours a week.

"We would see that percentage increasing very significantly," she said.

Her interim report last November said only 20,000 people on invalid benefits had such severe disabilities or illnesses that they could never be expected to work.

It also suggested sole parents should have to look for part-time work when their youngest children turn either 1, in line with the maximum parental leave, or 3, when "free" early childhood education begins.

If it opts in the end for age 2, that would exempt only 22,500 sole parent beneficiaries with youngest children under 2.

That would increase the proportion of beneficiaries required to look for work from 37% to 88%, or about 310,000 people.

Labour's social development spokeswoman, Annette King, said she hoped the group recommended a "fair level of carrot, rather than lots of stick".

"You have to get people the tools to get people off the benefit. For example, if you are a mother with young children, you've got to be able to find suitable work and it has to be work that can ensure that you can look after your children," she said.

It is not known whether the final report will pick up other tough options from the interim report, such as reducing the level of benefits after a year or requiring beneficiaries to work for their money after two years.

But Ms Rebstock said any hard-line proposals for beneficiaries would be matched by proposals for families, employers, health services and the Government to give people more help to get off welfare.

"You can't just pick the nice things, and you can't just pick the things that tighten things up," she said.

"You have got to pick a combination of the two."

She said a key theme would be improving outcomes for the 222,000 children who are growing up in welfare-dependent homes.

Get back to work- welfare report> From Page 1That will include programmes for teenage parents and their families - a crucial group because most beneficiaries with children are sole parents and a third of all sole-parent beneficiaries had a first baby before age 20.

The group's interim report suggested requiring teen parents under 18 to live with their parents or a responsible adult, and requiring the teens to immunise their babies, attend Plunket regularly, attend parenting programmes and take their children to early childhood education.

The working group is also keen to develop services, modelled on the Accident Compensation Corporation's Better@Work scheme, which help health services and employers to plan together for the gradual return to work of people with illnesses or disabilities.

Ms Rebstock said the group would recommend taking a long-term view, accepting there could be increased costs in the short term.

The report would recommend "an achievable numerical target" to substantially cut the proportion of the working-aged population on benefits over the next decade, Ms Rebstock said.

The other group members were occupational physician Prof Des Gorman, rehabilitation specialist Prof Kathryn McPherson, social policy specialist Prof Ann Dupuis, former Act New Zealand Party president Catherine Isaac, job support agent Adrian Roberts and two Maori social service leaders, Sharon Wilson-Davis and Enid Ratahi-Pryor.


By the numbers


352,700 beneficiaries aged 18-64
22,500 on DPB with youngest child under 2
20,000 who will never be capable of work
310,200 who may have to look for work

Simon Collins

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