Editorial: welfare needs quake compassion

Cecily McNeill2011 It is hard to put into words the horror of watching Christchurch city crumble, the crushed but alive, the bodies, the heroic rescues. The rest of the country…

Cecily McNeill

It is hard to put into words the horror of watching Christchurch city crumble, the crushed but alive, the bodies, the heroic rescues. The rest of the country and indeed the world has been listening to stories of people finding their loved ones, or discovering that a family member would no longer be occupying their bed.

Disasters tend to bring out the best in humanity. One rescue team leader said after a few days of toiling through rubble made doubly precarious by constant aftershocks and fires that the hardest job was getting team members to take a break such was the drive to find another victim alive.

Yet even in a tragedy such as this there are people who will rip off others – like the two 20-somethings who were arrested for stealing emergency generators. The central city has had its share of looters and people trying to breach the police cordon. Commercial rents in the city have doubled as landlords try to recover their loss at the expense of quake victims. It seems as long as there is a system, there will be people trying to rort it for their own ends.

It is well known that the government set up the Welfare Working Group which presented its report on the day the quake hit, Tuesday February 22, to move people who were working the welfare system for their own ends away from the opportunity to continue to make significant amounts from their benefit.

Usually these wily characters are in a small minority but they help to undermine the genuineness of those who really do need government help, who, for example, are raising the next generation of taxpayers on a shoestring.

Many Christchurch people have been rendered homeless in the quake.

Disasters often strike the poor and most vulnerable but the Christchurch quake became the leveller that put the rich and poor in the same melting pot, needing the same kind of help.

No one will quibble over changes to legislation to fast track help to those Christchurch people in need.

The Welfare Working Group’s report has had a less than favourable reception. The children’s commissioner, John Angus, has welcomed some of the group’s suggestions such as more support for childcare and a transition payment to help mothers get into work but says others could exacerbate some children’s already precarious existence. Taking a hardline approach to getting sole parents off benefits may put children’s wellbeing at risk.

‘Government policies need to support parents of very young infants to spend longer than 14 weeks at home with their child, regardless of whether they are on a benefit,’ he told Simon Collins of the New Zealand Herald, February 24.

Some recommendations to boost early childhood education, early childhood care and drug and rehabilitation services seem to suggest an understanding of the difficulty of sole parenting and that there is no quick fix solution to benefit dependency.

The government has been unfailingly compassionate towards the victims of the quake but now needs to show similar compassion to those longer-term beneficiaries who also need help.