In one of the most memorable presidential addresses, John F. Kennedy in 1961 concluded his inaugural with the words: "Ask not what your country can do for you ó ask what you can do for your country". The words resonated with my generation. We had grown up in welfare states where governments provided opportunities for as many as possible. We had to make the most of them, and in turn, give something back. The clarion call of "equal opportunities" inspired many. The Princes Street Branch of the Labour Party where I rubbed shoulders with Jonathan Hunt, Richard Prebble, Helen Clark and Phil Goff published a booklet on the subject.
Our philosophy rested on the assumption that, given opportunities, everyone would make an effort. Only misfortune would hold them back. We held high expectations of those receiving help. Taxpayers would underwrite nanny state, while beneficiaries contracted to work to the best of their abilities. Naively, we couldn't imagine that many would not bother. Yet signs to that effect were emerging. By the late 1960s, despite virtually free tertiary education plus bursaries for most, relatively few lower income families sent their children to tertiary institutions. A free Plunket service didn't mean all mothers from low socio-economic groups enrolled. In recent times, the poor have made less use of free under-six GP visits than the wealthy.
In the early 1970s some on the left started arguing that under-achievement couldn't be tolerated. We needed to go beyond "equal opportunities" and ensure "equal outcomes". After each census a journalist would highlight income figures, noting that the gap between rich and poor was widening. Some argued for more income redistribution to close the gaps. "Positive discrimination", gender enhancement, the domestic purposes benefit, an array of supplementary benefits, and extra funding for schools in poorer areas were devised. But the gaps widened at a faster rate. In retrospect the reason is obvious. More and more able-bodied people weren't earning. In 1975 only 5% of our working age population was state dependent. Today it is 21%, despite the fact that our economy is more robust, and jobs more plentiful. Ask not what you can do for yourself or your country, but what it can do for you, became a creed for many. Surely it's gone too far?
Where did the notion come from that the state should pay the able-bodied? Americans attribute it to the publication in 1962 of a book called The Other America: Poverty in the US, by an influential Marxist, Michael Harrington. He argued that 50 million Americans lived below his (questionable) poverty line; that the capitalist system always created victims; and ó by implication ó there was no point expecting them to help themselves. We needed to be more proactive.
Harrington's book was analysed around the world. Its appeal for "a new mood of social idealism" created a sense of guilt among the better off, and of victim-hood amongst those less fortunate. President Lyndon Johnson declared a "War on Poverty" and instituted cash handouts to the able-bodied. New Zealand followed suit. Walter Nash's dictum that work was the title to reward got turned on its head. Less was heard about "equal opportunities". Instead, a form of cargo cult emerged amongst society's "victims". National and Labour governments endorsed the underlying principle of systemic deprivation by opening the cash register.
The most startling trend of the last thirty years has been the decline of personal responsibility and the self-help ethic, important features of our pioneering days. The Labour governments of Savage, Fraser and Nash always expected people to work. But poverty, disadvantage, even crime, are now blamed on "the system". Accidents receive compensation, no matter whether personal carelessness is involved. To be feckless is no barrier to remuneration. In 1898, old age pensioners were expected to be of good character and to have spent 25 years (working) in the colony. No longer. Muggers, murderers, molesters and new migrants get assistance.
In the 1970s and 80s the notion of victim-hood was extended to include women, some of whom now worked as social workers. Maintaining a steady supply of further victims was fundamental to their jobs. Maori, who really had been victimised in the 1860s, were added to the list. Today the Waitangi industry expands exponentially as many young Maori, capable of so much more, fail to grab legitimate opportunities available to them, seduced instead by handouts.
Kennedy was right. Personal responsibility and doing one's bit for one's country, will always produce better outcomes. Phoney notions of victim-hood never can. Harrington's research has been thoroughly discredited. Until such time as the Princes Street graduates in power today come up to speed and realise that indiscriminate benefits genuinely create victims, we'll never close any gaps. What we need are not handouts, but encouragement for people to grasp the opportunities surrounding them.
Michael Bassett, historian and author, was a Labour MP between 1972 and 1990.