Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

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12/12/01 Margaret Wilson

Susan St John's Welfare Blanket


Susan St John's Welfare Blanket

It's high time the extreme left assault being mounted on New Zealand's welfare tradition by Susan St John and the Child Poverty Action Group (the most recent being Herald 22 January) is subjected to scrutiny. They argue that there should be no barriers to anyone helping themselves to taxpayer money if and when they feel like it. If they had read their history these extremists would know that the welfare structure put in place by Labour governments after 1935 was never intended to provide the same income to those not in work as was earned by those who worked. Michael Joseph Savage and Peter Fraser argued that there was dignity in work, and an obligation. Walter Nash, Finance Minister to both of them, told the Labour faithful in 1936 that work was essential to win a reward. Fraser backed sending workers to other centres if jobs couldn't be found in areas where they lived, so long as they could return home for visits. When faced in Parliament with a question about what he would do with someone who refused work on such terms, Fraser replied that the welfare state had no place for the "ingrained, degenerate loafer". If people who could work did not understand their obligation to do so, they forfeited all right to maintenance.

That was then, of course, and now is now, but an obligation to seek work has remained a basic requirement. Today, a requirement to retrain if skills in an area of the economy are no longer required, has been added. Yes, it was always recognized that there would be some who would temporarily be unemployed or who through illness or disability needed state support. They should make their case to the appropriate authority. Today, surely, every reasonable person supports that safety net? But as late as 2007 the Social Security Act put paid work at the centre of the welfare state.

At one point St John and her co-author of the recent article note, disapprovingly, that the welfare state always emphasized the need for people to seek work before calling on the state. But she and her colleagues don't ask themselves why that was. Nor do they explain why they disapprove. Surely a requirement to work is a matter of fairness? Why should hard working families who often toil long hours and find it difficult to make ends meet have to carry the additional cost of paying for the upkeep of others who simply choose not to work - Peter Fraser's "ingrained, degenerate loafer"? They now seem to be St John's and her colleagues' pin-up people. Means testing has been basic to welfare since the day it began. But under the St John regime, it seems, anyone who feels he or she needs a little more money should be able to walk into an appropriate state agency and receive instant cash because he/she feels they "need" it, no questions asked.

Although the article at one stage talks of people being given a chance to "get back on to their own feet", which surely involves a return to paid work of some kind, the world St John and her friends argue for would be one where work is optional. They seem to dismiss the basic notion central to the welfare state that all parents should strive to provide for their children. They do not acknowledge how essential personal effort must always be to survival. In their world, the government owes everyone a living.

Not only some basic history is needed for these agitators, but also a few lessons in how incentives work. If someone who doesn't work is rewarded the same as someone who does, and no questions are asked, why would anyone bother to work or to pay the costs involved in getting to work? Or, for that matter, pay the taxes necessary to fund the benefits - or the university salaries that sustained Susan St John throughout her academic career? Pretty basic stuff, really. Perhaps in their next column St John and her friends will tell us how they intend to fund their brave new world with no requirements to work, and where everyone can march into a welfare agency and demand cash, no questions asked?

Michael Bassett is an historian who was a Labour MP for 15 years