Like many New Zealanders, I lived for four years in the 1990s on a benefit. No one who has had to bare the unhappiest details of their lives for an impersonal – and sometimes hostile – government clerk can easily forget the humiliation.
Let no one tell you life on a benefit is cushy. There is constant economic stress – never having enough money to clear all the bills, shivering through winter yet still paying off the winter power bill at Christmas; eating cheap carbohydrates that keep the children feeling full yet tired from lack of protein and fresh vegetables; getting into debt paying high childcare and transport costs.
Like many other solo parents, study – with the help of the training incentive allowance – helped me into a job.
Many beneficiaries hope that the ladder that helped us out of poverty could be protected and even strengthened for those coming after us, but the current Minister of Social Development is one former beneficiary who would prefer to pull the ladder up behind her.
Not only is she tinkering with elements of the current system –removing the training incentive allowance, and extending work testing, but in launching her ‘Welfare Working Group’ she seeks to radically reshape the future of social welfare delivery to New Zealand’s most vulnerable citizens.
Caritas believes there is a need to debate the future of social security in a way that respects and includes the views of those who experience life on a benefit.
Pope John XXIII first articulated Catholic support for social security systems saying they were effective in reducing imbalances between sections of society which lessened people’s ability to achieve their rights and meet their responsibilities ( Mater et Magistra 1961).
Pope Benedict repeated this concern last year in Caritas in Veritate, saying inequalities erode social cohesion and social capital and show a breakdown in the solidarity of the human family.
The benefit cuts of the early 1990s contributed to New Zealand having the highest growth in inequality rates in the OECD. While the current benefit system produces an unequal society in which many people live deprived and disempowered lives, the alternatives could be far worse. We could find ourselves, as in the United States, in a situation in which many families end up without any government entitlements and are thrown on the mercy of whatever charitable organisations are able to do for them.
The Minister said on One News that such people could be referred to the Salvation Army. If churches are expected to pick up the pieces from failed social policies, what consideration has been given to our capacity and ability to do so? Churches are not represented on the government-sponsored working party – nor are beneficiaries.
To widen the range of voices in the debate, Caritas, the Social Justice Commission of the Anglican Church and the Beneficiary Advocacy Federation of New Zealand have established an alternative Welfare Working Party.
Pope John Paul II asked us to ‘abandon a mentality in which the poor are considered a burden, as irksome intruders trying to consume what others have produced’. Our welfare system is not only for people currently on benefits but as a protection for all of us. Hospitals ensure a healthy society. Schools help everyone to grow in understanding and welfare is for all of us.