You’re on Your Own: the Nanny State Becomes a Hard Taskmaster

Listener 14 March, 1998.

Keywords: Social Policy;

It is just a year since the Department of Social Welfare’s “Beyond Dependency” conference, memorable for the anger it generated. Charging a very high fee (near $1400) was a clear signal that the Department was not interested in a public discussion, but only the financial elite. It backed down by offering a few free places to selected people, but the perception of exclusivity remained.

Once the Department it was seen as speaking on behalf of the poor and the dependent. Now it wants to take us “beyond dependency”, whatever that means, while the kindest thing which could be said its attitude to the poor is it advocates polices to increase their numbers. The crucial change may have been the Public Finance Act. Before then the Department saw its function to extract the maximum funds from the Treasury on behalf of its (mainly beneficiary) clients. Today it is more like it receiving a lump sum which it has to allocate among its clients, moving it from advocation to prioritisation. This is a simplification, of course, but the shift of attitude is felt both by those who are beneficiaries and those who work with them.

Beneath this is a fundamental change. The 1972 Royal Commission on Social Security, very influenced by the submissions from the old department, set down its principles of the welfare state to include “the community is responsible for giving dependent people a standard of living consistent with human dignity and approaching that enjoyed by the majority, irrespective of the cause of dependency … Need and degree of need should be the primary test and criterion of the help to be given … Coverage should be comprehensive irrespective of cause …”

Thus people in need were entitled to community support. The recent transformation has been to eliminate that entitlement. Those in need can no longer be sure they will be supported adequately by the state. They may receive state charity, they may receive state support for a period, but the needy are losing their entitlements, their rights to state support. This shift is not peculiar to New Zealand. Critical to the approach of the State of Wisconsin, which was fashionable at the conference (even though it was only partly implemented and not evaluated), is the explicit withdrawal of any entitlements.

There is a long term interdependence between different entitlements. Recall how in 1991 the unemployment benefit was cut to a lower level than others (insufficient to feed a prisoner according to Treasury estimates). Now it is proposed to cut the sickness benefit to that level (even though an associate minister of social welfare announced she was too sick to live on the higher sickness benefit). Are you surprised? Such cutting social security benefit levels and conditions will lead to proposals to cut New Zealand Superannuation. I am not saying that when Minister of Social Welfare Shipley slashed the unemployment benefit she planned to one day slash the sickness benefit, nor that as Prime Minister she plans to cut state retirement benefits. Rather there is a political fiscal/logic in the current dismantling of the welfare state. (And its ultimate logic is to cut back the retirement entitlement. Why should the elderly not go “beyond dependency”?)

Once the state supported us in our need. Now it imposes on us, while withdrawing that support. The Code of Social (sic) Responsibility does not set down responsibilities for society and the state, but for individuals. Of course parents must be responsible for their children, but the whole of the village brings up a child. Where in the code is the state’s responsibility; where is it’s commitment to the partnership of society and parenting? The government is like an errant father who tells a long suffering mother what she should do, and then buggers off. The code places obligations on parents while withdrawing government support, just as it is running away from the 1972 Royal Commission’s principle of supporting those in need. The motto of its new welfare state might be “you’re on your own now.”