Welfare advisory group: rethink the old ‘rules’

The welfare advisory group is retelling the welfare, work and economics story, including the old rules that say only paid work counts as real work. Will the Government listen? asks Jess Berentson-Shaw.

The Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG) wants New Zealanders to see past our old ideas of welfare. That is not entirely surprising. There are few people in New Zealand who would think that the system of support we have is working for anyone.

However, what is surprising is that this report is about far more than about putting dignity back into welfare. It is about reframing what welfare even is and what kind of thinking we should prioritise if we want a society where everyone thrives. The people in the welfare advisory group want people in government and in the public to rethink how our society works, and especially our current "economic rules". 

Money matters
The report reflects what experts; those who have lived under the shadow of the current system; and researchers have advocated for for some years. And the most critical and specific policy recommendation is to raise the level of payments between 12 and 47 percent depending on the support type - raise it so that people don't simply struggle to survive but can, with the right support, have the space to make better lives for themselves and their families. 

All of us know that to have the time, mental energy, and the physical resources to build a different life requires that we are not flattened under unrelenting stress (stress such as how to pay the ever-increasing rent on a cold, damp house, or get children to their next hospital appointment without transport or funds or support).

Money matters to how people do in life, and the group recognises that fundamental truth. Yet they also want people in Government to recognise that more paid work is not the solution for many people in receipt of welfare, because they are already doing work. Work that means other people in New Zealand can undertake paid work, or is critical to a functioning and thriving society.

Talking about unpaid labour is radical, acting on it even more so
I talk a lot about the role of unpaid labour in ensuring our society runs. And why we need to build better recognition of that into our policy making agenda to improve social and economic outcomes.

More than 40 years after Marilyn Waring was raising the critical importance of unpaid work in her role as a National MP in Muldoon's Government, it is still excruciatingly difficult to get people to take the issue seriously. So I don't underestimate how very radical it is for a group at this level to talk with such clarity about the importance of unpaid work. As the WEAG says:

"People not undertaking paid work are also contributing...An opportunity exists to better recognise the contribution people make through unpaid work (such as caring for children, disabled people and elderly people and volunteering with community organisations or cultural and creative enterprises). The value of caring for children and others and volunteering in one's community needs far greater acceptance and recognition."

The group is saying that the Government can use the welfare system to help reframe the economic rules that says only paid work counts as real work in New Zealand.

What the group is also emphasising here is a message that is woven through the rest of the report - that many of those in receipt of welfare understand their obligations to society very well. The problem isn't that people getting welfare don't understand or fulfil their obligations to society. The problem is that other people - including those in government and making policy - don't recognise that there are different ways to fulfil those obligations.

Hiding the failures of the ACC System in Welfare is not Working
Disability occurs frequently throughout the report. The theme of the report is that the large number of people both with a disability, and working to look after those with a disability, are having to rely on a fundamentally insufficient support system. 

People receiving a benefit because they have a health condition or disability, or care for a person with a health condition or a disability, make up 53 percent of all working-age benefit recipients.

The group is very clear that having one system to support those who have an accident (ACC) and other systems for those with a disability, with very different values at their heart, has created a mess. We have support systems that fail at the first hurdle to be supportive. They offer insufficient assistance for disability related issues, and no real commitment to working with employers or other sectors to create good meaningful appropriate work for people with a disability. 

Women and welfare
With this focus on unpaid work and disability, finally comes a recognition of what has been an invisible issue - the gendered nature of welfare. Or as the group says: "Women are significantly affected by the welfare system".

It is because people have designed systems that have rendered the lives and needs of women, especially Māori and Pacific women invisible, probably without even knowing they are doing it.

Poverty is not solely a women's issue, but we have consistently failed in our policy making in the last 40 years to recognise that the lives and needs of people are different based on the roles they take in society. And that we have different roles based on our gender.

Women are in the main the primary carers for people in our society, they are the ones to take time off to care for children, disabled or ill relatives, or adult parents, they are paid less than men at work, they own fewer assets and have less wealth.

For Māori or Pacific woman the economic position is the worst of all groups. And it is not by accident. It is because people have designed systems that have rendered the lives and needs of women, especially Māori and Pacific women invisible, probably without even knowing they are doing it.

So it is meaningful that the WEAG made it clear they see women, they see their lives and their needs. And they see how badly people who have designed the welfare system has accounted for them.

A change in the story can be lead by politicians
The WEAG is making a significant attempt to change the story about welfare, work, disability and the economic rules in this country. Changing how the public thinks about issues with such a strong set of narratives already in existence is challenging. It can, however, be successful if it is led by research. 

.. this Government [has] talked a lot about transformative change in the way policy making is done ... The opportunity is certainly there with this report to make good on that talk.

Helping people think along the lines of what the evidence says first requires that we connect with the values that people hold that are helpful to solving these particular problems. For example, talking about the importance of a welfare system that delivers self respect and is focused on helping people to set and achieve their own goals for themselves and their families.

The words and images we use evoke certain ways of understanding the world. Some are less helpful to the type of systems changes the WEAG recommends. So words matter and need to be researched. Different metaphors can frame entirely different ways of thinking about causes and solutions in crime, poverty, and inequality, for example. And because people have very strong mental models about how a problem arises, and the solutions that work, evidence alone won't deliver more productive ways of thinking. Instead, facts need to be used to progress the cause and effect at play, not just lay out the problems over and over again, so people fall back on their usual ways of thinking about an issue. 

These strategies can be implemented with effect by people in government, by leaders, as well as by experts and communicators. The WEAG has started a new story, and it has challenged people in this Government to keep telling it.

The Prime Minister and indeed other Ministers across the parties of this Government have talked a lot about transformative change in the way policy making is done, in their own different ways. The opportunity is certainly there with this report to make good on that talk.

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