by Jan Logie
Because yesterday the Government confirmed plans to reform the sickness benefit system.
Basically they’re getting rid of the sickness benefit merging it into the wider job seeker benefit, albeit with some exemptions from work readiness activities if someone is deemed too sick.
The invalids benefit will be left in place as the supported living allowance.
The Government has said they’ll be focussing on what people can do not what they can’t, and will be transforming MSD to provide much more support for people to get into employment and thus radically improve their lives.
The Minister has accused Auckland Poverty Action of wanting to leave people stagnating on welfare. She suggests those who oppose the reforms are patronizing and stereotyping people by not believing they can work.
They suggest that being on a benefit is undesirable and unhealthy. They use research to support this. Their Principal Health Advisor is leading training of other doctors on the negative health impacts of welfare comparing receiving a benefit with smoking.
It’s a clever line. It positions the Government as ambitious, willing to break with tradition and treat people receiving welfare as capable rather than not, needing help rather than punishment. In other words they’re trying to make it look as if they’re progressive.
There are many problems with this though.
Focussing on capability is really important. Unfortunately the Government is not treating people as capable. If they thought they were capable they wouldn’t feel the need to incentivise job seeking behaviour with sanctions. Sanctions are a punishment.
I’ve suffered from depression and I know how bleak the world can seem from that place and how even the smallest tasks can seem impossible and reinforce existing feelings of inadequacy. The Government’s new policy sounds to me like the legislative version of the pull your socks up approach to depression. This has never worked, and it won’t work now, even with the fancy new language, because depression is fundamentally different from laziness.
This model in the UK has resulted in an increasing number of suicides of people with illnesses and disabilities.
This legislation will require people diagnosed with cancer to focus on what they’re capable of, in terms of employment, rather than what they’re not. This will change once they’ve been diagnosed as terminal. If they want to keep working or look for work then great but if not surely a reasonable society would let someone battling cancer focus on that battle and not siphon their energies off into proving their work readiness or availability.
To require people who are sick to engage in work readiness activities and look for work assumes they don’t know what’s best for them. It even seems to assume their doctor doesn’t know either.
The evidence that shows the negative health impacts of income support is contestable and I don’t think it can be used to draw the conclusions that this Government has drawn. There is some evidence that receiving income support has negative health consequences, but this has not to my knowledge considered if this would still be true if the benefit wasn’t set below the poverty level. It also ignores the research that shows it’s actually worse to be in low paid vulnerable employment with poor conditions than it is to be on welfare.
By focussing on the individual again this whole model misses employer biases when it comes to employing people with mental and physical illnesses/disabilities.
I’ve been working recently with People First a wonderful self-advocacy organisation for people with learning disabilities (previously referred to as intellectual disabilities) and they are very worried that the Government will decide they’re not work capable and leave them languishing without support on the supported living allowance. They need support to counter employer discrimination, redesign jobs and put in the support needed to enable them to do the job well. They are very aware though that without this help they may be the last to get the work.
I’ve heard the same message from groups of people with disabilities about the difficulty of overcoming prejudices in the employment market.
If the Government was serious about helping people into employment they would address the barriers to employment. This Bill does nothing to address those barriers.