Welfare: facts belie claims

Methodist Mission CEO Laura Black believes the Government's welfare proposals are fighting an imaginary enemy (ODT 6.6.11). There is indeed an enemy, according to National MP Michael Woodhouse. It is the acceptance that, for the growing cohort trapped in welfare, this is as good as it gets.

In the two years after my election to Parliament, social agencies implored me to advocate for more Government support for beneficiaries. That conversation changed after the establishment of the Welfare Working Group, which reported its recommendations on reducing long-term benefit dependency in February.

Despite a growing body of evidence to the contrary, the Methodist Mission's Christmas 2010 advertising campaign even claimed there was no evidence welfare dependency even existed.

Let's look at the facts for our region:

• While registered unemployed declined in Otago from 2000-08, invalid's benefit recipients more than doubled and sickness benefit numbers increased by 40%.

• Eighty percent of beneficiaries of working age receive non-work-tested benefits. The total cost of the current benefit receipt is estimated over time to be $141,000 per person. If current trends and benefit receipt continue unabated, 16% of the working-age population could be on a benefit by 2050.

• Half the teenagers who entered the benefit system before they were 18 have spent five or more of the last 10 years on a benefit. One hundred thousand New Zealanders have spent nine or more years on a benefit.

• On average, if a person is off work for 45 days due to illness, the chance of ever going back to work is just 50%. This falls to 35% if the absence is longer than 70 days.

• One in four sole parents who are on the DPB has another child while on benefit.

We can play with statistics until doomsday, but these are real people with real lives who rely on the Government to assist them out of poverty.

I have worked for ACC, the rehabilitation management system Ms Black opposes. I applaud ACC for its focus on what injured claimants can do rather than what they can't do. I support plans to introduce the same efforts for working-age beneficiaries. And I simply do not accept that there are a finite number of jobs and that our population must have a proportion of its working-age population benefit-dependent.

The 2011 Budget projects 170,000 new jobs in the next four years. I think this is conservative. The equivalent of New Zealand's entire annual construction activity is required for Christchurch for each of the next five years. Other industries project a strong rebound from the recession and it is important we position our working-age beneficiaries to take advantage of this through training, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, early childhood education and other programmes.

I reject Ms Black's description of jobs needing to be meaningful, suitable and well paid. All work is meaningful, pays better than the dole and the social and mental health gains from such employment far outweigh the malaise that sets in as a consequence of long-term benefit dependency. To suggest otherwise demeans the many New Zealanders who perform those tasks day in and day out.

Members of the public say to me they simply cannot fathom why able-bodied working-age beneficiaries continue to receive unemployment benefits in Otago, while thousands of overseas workers are granted immigration under the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme.

Setting expectations for work readiness and assisting beneficiaries to seek work or further training is not beneficiary bashing. To allow the intergenerational welfare dependency that is emerging in this country to continue bashes beneficiaries to a far greater degree than the sensible and necessary proposals the Government is considering.

Michael Woodhouse is a Dunedin National Party list MP.


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