Turn the system the right way up

This week I went to a public forum hosted by the Welfare Expert Advisory Group, the panel appointed to advise the government on creating a fair welfare system. 

I wrote about the process, and the forum itself, for the Nelson Mail. I tried to skate the line a bit with the piece, because I didn’t want to throw anyone to the wolves – myself included. (The comments section is open, so far it seems pretty sedate, if a bit “yes but you’re one of ‘the good ones'” – eye roll).

We had four members of the WEAG at the Nelson forum – I’m guessing others are travelling to other centres? – and I spoke to all of them. I was, actually, very tentatively impressed. You all know how jaded I am about any change actually happening with welfare. It takes a lot for anything or anyone to give me any glimmer of hope. But these people did. They are not bureaucrats. They’re not any part of MSD. They are real people who brought real heart into the room, and that was pretty damn reassuring, to be honest.

Anyway, have a read of that article if you’re interested in the process. What I do want to do is really strongly encourage – actually, kind of beg – you to respond to the survey that the WEAG is also using to gather information that will inform their recommendations. The survey can be quick or a little longer, depending on how much you have to say, but it asks just a few very open ended questions, including what should our welfare system do better, and what values do we want to see underpin it.

This is not just about beneficiaries. This is about our whole social system. It doesn’t just affect people who need it right now; it affects anyone who might need it ever – which is basically all of us. Very few people are exempt from the possibility of a situation where they might suddenly need extra support – a growing family, a job loss, an illness, an accident. And even if you can never imagine a time when this might affect you personally – this is about what sort of society we want to live in. About the founding principles we want for New Zealand. A lot of that was reflected in the values we came up with at the forum: fair, equitable, trustworthy, non-judgemental, respectful, compassionate, kind. They’re basic tenets for a social welfare system – and at the moment, they don’t exist.

I made the mistake of just writing my answers directly into the form and hitting submit, so I can’t share verbatim what I said. However, I know I wrote in the list of values above.

I also wrote about some of my experiences trying to get the SLP, about how people with disabilities are made to jump through difficult hoops when their circumstances are different. About how it’s impossible to declare my income properly in the current system, and how I lose out every time I do. About how people lose their benefits when they enter relationships – including people with disabilities. If a disabled person moves in with someone, that person becomes responsible for not just the additional living costs, but also the costs of disability like medication and medical care. So if a person with a disability wants to enter a relationship, they have to weigh up losing their autonomy.

If you can’t think of anything to write, please feel free to repeat anything I have said. And also, here’s what the Green Party is calling for:

  1. Increase baseline benefits
    Our social support system shouldn’t leave the most vulnerable people living in poverty. No matter who you are in New Zealand, you should have enough to live with dignity.
  2. Remove sanctions
    Sanctions punish people for being poor. Kiwis know it’s about time we offered support for those trying to find work, rather than making things harder for them.
  3. Change the benefit reduction threshold
    Right now, benefit reduction thresholds are so low that people are often put a worse financial position than if they didn’t work at all. We want to increase this threshold, so no one is worse off for finding casual or part-time work.
  4. Combine the In Work Tax Credit & the Family Tax Credit
    Every child deserves a great start in life, but the In-Work Tax Credit only goes to some families – punishing people who can’t work. Let’s combine it with the Family Tax Credit, so all children benefit.
  5. Moving towards a just system of individual needs
    People are penalised for falling in love. We need to move towards a just system of entitlements based on individual need so that people can be in relationships of mutual support without fear of losing their financial independence.

Let’s hope that the WEAG member Robert Reid was right, when he told me “We’re going to turn the welfare system the right way up. Some people might say ‘on it’s head’ but no, because it’s already upside down.”

Kia ora.