Yesterday I attended the Welfare Justice Alternative Welfare Working Group forum at Tātai Hono Marae in Auckland. Over 50 people engaged in an excellent process of discussion on welfare reform on the basis that people mattered. The fora, which are being held in a diverse range of communities, are stimulating a positive vision of welfare without the narrow parameters and punitive agenda of the Government’s official Welfare Working Group.
People from community groups, people currently on benefits, people from churches, and people from social service agencies were all participants in brainstorming some key principles for alternatives. Under the leadership of Sue Bradford, Associate Professor Mike O’Brien, Bishop Muru Walters, and the Anglican Social Justice Commissioner Anthony Dancer, we discussed the need for a broad culture change which would stop the stigmatisation of people who at times need state financial support.
Longer term strategies such as a Universal Basic Income or at least some universal provision for children were well supported in order to simplify the system and remove the judgmental attitudes often attached to all benefits other than New Zealand Superannuation.
There was a realistic understanding about the costs of change at both the ideological and the practical levels. The visions of a compassionate and respectful agency which supported people to towards meaningful work were supported, alongside a call for immediate changes.
These included extending Working for Families to all families and restoring benefit rates to pre-1991 levels; restoring the discretionary Special Benefit for people who cannot meet their essential financial commitments; and creating some real jobs appropriate for the diversity of people who need them.
Consistency in the application of welfare law across the country and accessible and affordable child care were seen as essentials. Work and Income need to foster a culture of respect towards the diversity of all who need help, and they need the resources to do it well.
Some people had experienced the disempowerment of unemployment in a society which defined work as paid work only. An often stated view was that the Government’s official Welfare Working Group is not engaged in a real dialogue with all parties on the meaning of welfare and well-being, let alone the definition of ‘work’ or of ‘dependency’. Many contributors felt Government is targeting the most vulnerable, and threatening sanctions at a time when jobs are not available for many people who are parents, live with disability, or lack of literacy.
The Welfare Justice Alternative Welfare Working Group were given a clear message that their work is essential to balance the cost cutting agenda and misleading statistics with which the Government is manufacturing a sense of crisis around welfare costs.
The Green Party looks forward to seeing all the findings of the national fora, and to work with both the long term vision and practical suggestions of people who actually understand the welfare system and how to transform it for the good of all.
UPDATE: The Alternative Welfare Working Group are seeking submissions on the principles that you think are important for social welfare, examples of where these principles are or are not being applied, ideas or recommendations for change, and any general comments about welfare change. You can make your submission here. The closing date is 30 September.