Great family policy from the Greens

I’m not just saying this because I suggested exactly this policy three months ago on Twitter, though it is always satisfying to see great minds thinking alike!

The Greens’ Welcome Pack for newborn babies is modelled on Finnish baby boxes – a basic kitset of stuff which every baby needs, delivered in a box – or in the case of NZ, a wahakura – which doubles as a safe/separate sleeping pod.

It provides financial relief to families just when they get the wonderful fresh-smelling bundle of new expenses that is a baby, it ensures babies have everything they need, including a place to sleep. In Finland it’s helped the environment by providing new parents with reusable nappies, reducing the number of disposables used and thrown into landfill. And, ideally, it’s stocked with New Zealand-manufactured baby goods, creating a steady market for Kiwi-made products and creating jobs.

And it shows that we value every newborn baby and think every New Zealand-born child deserves to have their basic needs met, and a happy, healthy start to life.

So it’s good for babies, it’s good for families, it’s good for the environment, it’s good for the economy. Who could possibly argue with that?

“This policy is taking ‘nanny state’ to a new level but indicates just how much the Greens want to intervene in family life,” says Bob McCoskrie, National Director of Family First NZ.

Oh, right.

The cost of a bowl of Weet-Bix

One of the most dishonest arguments the right ever put forward on the subject of poverty is around one of the simplest things in life: a bowl of Weet-Bix.

Yesterday Nikki Kaye approvingly re-posted a letter to the editor which illustrates the dishonesty, saying in part:

I costed three healthy breakfasts: two free-range scrambled eggs on lightly buttered mixed grain toast with salt and pepper cost $1.39 and took five minutes to prepare; quick-cook porridge with a banana and a sprinkling of brown sugar cost 94c and four minutes’ time. And three Weet-Bix and milk with a sprinkling of sugar cost 55c and took two minutes … do we really want to accept that 55c and two minutes’ time is too high a threshold to expect for parents’ dedication to their children?

As I said to Kaye on Twitter:

It’s a truly heartless – and illogical – way to look at the question of why so many Kiwi kids are going to school hungry. Obviously you can’t buy milk in 100mL bottles or toast one piece at a time. And making breakfast for yourself is, I understand, a very different situation to preparing it with even one child, much less two or three, all in need of waking, clothing, feeding, and getting out the door – even with two parents around to run things.

On her Facebook page, you can see Kaye trying to walk herself back out of the nasty, judgemental tone, claiming she was just supporting a brave mum who did a great job in trying circumstances. But we all know exactly what message the right are sending when they approvingly tweet this kind of diatribe:

Poor people just aren’t trying hard enough. Poor people are just greedy and ungrateful. Beneficiaries are spending YOUR TAXPAYER DOLLARS on booze and fags. See, we need to crack down on them!

An excellent response came from @NoelZeng, who linked to this report by Auckland City Mission about the realities of life for people living in economic poverty:

Ten years ago people accessed food parcels when they experienced a crisis in their lives. Today, thousands of families rely on food banks as their regular source of food as money for food is considered to be discretionary spending by many. The increasing long-term use of the Mission’s food bank is a growing concern.

And, whilst we have an understanding of why people experience financial hardship, there is little understanding of what stops people moving out of poverty. With a prevailing opinion held by many that those living in poverty do so simply because they lack the initiative to free themselves from it, there is little impetus or pressure to address what is for many thousands of New Zealand families a desperate and deteriorating set of circumstances.

Of course the people who are already firmly stuck in the “55c and two minutes’ time!” mindset won’t be convinced by stories like the ones told in that report. There’s always something you’re doing wrong, some obvious area where you haven’t cut your standard of living down to the absolute bone.

The thing is, you can’t argue with the numbers.

Using WINZ’s online “check your eligibility” tool, I imagined myself as a solo mum with two kids, aged 4 and 5, living in Wellington, paying a (miraculous) $200 a week in rent. Healthy (thank god), not supporting sick or elderly relatives (thank god), but out of work (thanks, National) and definitely single (yes, WINZ, I’m sure, but thanks for popping up that dire warning about relationship fraud.)

End result: I may be entitled to Sole Parent Support of $299.45 per week, and possibly the Accommodation Supplement.

Unfortunately you can’t use the online tool to assess your Accommodation Support if you’re on a benefit (because what I need is some terrible web-design to add stress to my life) so I lied (typical beneficiary) and got an estimate of $72.

So my hypothetical alternate-universe solo mum self could hypothetically get $371.45 per week of your taxpayer dollars. But my hypothetical (very optimistic) rent was $200. And Otago University’s annual Food Cost Survey suggests that just to meet basic needs, I need to spend $137 on food per week – $59 for me, $44 for the five-year-old, $34 for the four-year-old.

Leaving me a princely sum of $34.45 to cover non-food groceries, transport, clothing, power, phone bill or prepay cellphone (need a phone number to look for work!), and any unexpected costs that might arise.

I literally couldn’t do it. Could you? Could Nikki Kaye?

 

Raising the minimum wage

Labour and the Greens have both committed to raising the minimum wage in government.

During the last leaders’ debate I got a few tweets from people insisting that raising the minimum wage would obviously kill all small business in New Zealand.

The thing is, like a lot of rightwing excuses for not helping the workers of New Zealand to get a fair deal, it’s rubbish.

There just is no evidence that raising the minimum wage means people lose jobs.

This 2013 report found that “the minimum wage has little or no discernible effect on the employment prospects of low-wage workers” – because the “cost shock” of raising it is small relative to the overall costs of running a business; because employers can adjust other costs to balance it out; and because people work harder and turnover drops when they’re paid a decent wage.

And while I couldn’t find any data for NZ, in the United States 66% of workers on minimum wage aren’t employed by struggling mom-and-pop businesses – they’re employed by companies like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s.

John Key was very particular about his concern for the poor hairdressers of Foxton who would be rendered destitute by paying their workers a few dollars more an hour. Hairdressers are clearly on the minds of the right – here’s DPF trying to argue that we shouldn’t have fair employment law because the hardworking hairdressers of Christchurch will suffer – so maybe they’d be interested in the views of a salon owner from Levin, who talked to Labour’s candidate for Ōtaki:

Raising the minimum wage is quite simply a good and necessary idea. It helps families, it helps businesses, it helps communities, and the reason it’s a leftwing thing to do is because we care about people not money.

Considering newborns

I’ve blogged before about some of the issues with our social welfare system which have been getting attention, thanks to great people like Sarah Wilson at Writehanded.

Labour and the Greens have been fighting these fights too – though this being an election year, they’re getting even less traction than they normally would. Unfortunately, our only hope of a real change in the way the state treats beneficiaries depends on a strong progressive turnout at the election in September.

Take this revelation from the Greens: after hammering the Prime Minister in the House about the lack of support for newborn babies – if their parents are silly enough to be on a benefit in a time of 6% unemployment, that is – they found a directive had been issued to MSD ordering its Chief Executive (and thus its staff) to “consider” whether a person had a newborn when applying for hardship assistance.

It’s a classic National manoeuvre. Ask them a straightforward question like “is there support for all newborn babies in New Zealand?” and get a straightforward “Yes” – with several significant caveats that altogether add up to No.

The obvious point: having your child’s needs “considered” when you’re applying for additional assistance is a very long way from the straight-up cash-in-hand parental tax credit everyone else gets. It’s a maybe. It’s just part of another process which has nothing specifically to do with supporting children.

But more insidiously, I think you can make the case that telling WINZ staff to “consider” newborn babies’ needs makes things even worse.

No social security net worthy of the label should have to have it spelled out that newborn babies create extra stress and greater need for families who are already struggling. Even in the purest, most generous of systems, supporting newborn babies and their families isn’t an optional thing.

And we know very well – because everyone seems to know someone who’s got a terrible WINZ story or two – that our system is far from pure and generous.

This is a callous box-ticking exercise by a government which really, really does not seem to care if you’re struggling to feed your children. I just hope that people will start to see that those in our communities who are on benefits deserve every bit of support we can give them.

And even if we can’t shake off all the myths and misconceptions and prejudices, at least we can say that babies deserve a decent start in life, however poorly we think of their parents.

No excuse for WINZ’s mistreatment of people in need

Yesterday one woman’s story blew the lid on our government’s treatment of beneficiaries. Sarah Wilson’s post on her ongoing struggles just to get Work and Income to do their job properly and give her the support she needs went viral, and as the comments flooded in, more stories emerged.

Stories about how humiliating it is to be sitting in a WINZ office when they ring the bell and applaud people who find jobs – even if they’re in a meeting with you at the time, and you’re in tears. Stories about literally having to record yourself delivering paperwork to prove you got it in on time, because it’s been lost, again, and your support has been stopped. Stories about puking on the floor because the next available home visit was four weeks away – so it was drag yourself in to the office, or starve.

It’s shocking, and yet unsurprising. We all know the stories of WINZ stuff-ups, the labyrinthine bureaucracy beneficiaries have to navigate to prove they’re worthy. But when the stories achieve a critical mass like this, it tells us unequivocally that there’s a bigger issue.

The best-case scenario is that Work and Income is staffed by people who are trying their darnedest to help but just have a massive blind spot when it comes to the realities of life for their ‘clients’ (and are really, really absent-minded with paperwork). The worst-case scenario is that every single one of them is on a satanic mission to make life hell for people like Sarah.

Obviously, the reality’s going to be somewhere in the middle. Some individuals are doing their best to help. Some individuals are doing their darnedest to get people off benefits, any way they can, because the numbers are how this government ‘proves’ that its reforms are ‘working’.

The big lesson to take away from this, though, is that stories like Sarah’s aren’t accidental.

There doesn’t have to be a big scary anti-beneficiary conspiracy to explain the mistreatment doled out to vulnerable people. There just has to be an attitude of ‘beneficiaries aren’t worth helping’. From that comes everything: a lack of basic processes (people have to record themselves handing over their paperwork!) a lack of basic empathy (ringing bells!) a lack of doing serious, constructive things which would actually help people like Sarah get back into work.

But if you want a conspiracy, think about this: one of the first changes this government made to social welfare in 2009 was to cut the Training Incentive Allowance. It made so little sense: why remove a benefit which helps parents upskill themselves to find better jobs to support their families?

Could it be the numbers? Could it be that when you help a solo mum through a nursing degree, you’re ‘letting’ her stay on a benefit for three more years – but if you make her life unbearable, until even an insecure, no-benefits job in a café, juggling childcare and hoping the power company’s kind, seems like a better alternative, you can get her off the benefit now?

In her post, Sarah says

I’m so tired of this. I almost want to force myself to go back to work because trying to stay on a benefit is more stressful than working fulltime with a debilitating chronic illness.

I have to ask: is that their point?

Sarah has now written a follow-up post.

Related reading: Frank Mcskasy has previously covered the epic piles of paperwork WINZ requires ‘jobseekers’ to fill out.