New Zealand needs a new vision for the social security system – not more flipflopping

<span>New Zealand's National Party's leader Christopher Luxon addresses his supporters in Auckland.</span><span>Photograph: Xinhua/Shutterstock</span>
New Zealand's National Party's leader Christopher Luxon addresses his supporters in Auckland.Photograph: Xinhua/Shutterstock

This week’s announcement by New Zealand’s new conservative government of a “tough love” welfare policy is simply the latest instalment of 30 years of flip-flopping that have left the country with a fragmented, ineffective and less-than-fully-humane benefit system.

Inspired by Jacinda Ardern’s rhetoric of “kindness”, the previous Labour-led government poured an extra $16.5bn into welfare, carefully delivered in instalments so as not to alarm the middle classes. The core unemployment benefit rose from $215 a week to $340. Even after adjusting for inflation and higher rents, the average beneficiary’s income grew by 43%, with flow-on effects including fewer children living in households where food runs short.

Related: Some of Jacinda Ardern’s legacy in New Zealand is safe. A lot of it isn’t | Henry Cooke

Anecdotal evidence also suggests Work and Income offices became more welcoming. Paul Clutterbuck, a 50-year-old Wellingtonian, said he had seen “a huge culture shift … moving away from beneficiary bashing and towards an environment of trusting the client to do the right thing”. Even so, many beneficiaries’ incomes were still $36-136 a week below the poverty line.

Now, as sure as night follows day, a centre-left policy of relative generosity is being replaced by a centre-right policy of relative toughness.

The National-led government has announced it will require welfare recipients to re-apply for benefits more often, tightly monitor how many jobs they are applying for, and use more sanctions against those deemed non-compliant, including cutting their benefits by up to half.

That is the “tough” part of their agenda – the “love” part, not yet fully fleshed out, will include more detailed skills assessments, job coaching and “job plans” for beneficiaries.

Many of these changes could have been copied and pasted from the relatively tough policies of John Key’s previous centre-right government, itself reacting against the relative generosity of Helen Clark’s preceding Labour administration.

In this ongoing policy loop, one of the frustrations for onlookers, and a source of stress for beneficiaries, is the emphasis on sanctions that derives from a flawed understanding of beneficiaries’ lives.

Battling addiction, poor health, low self-esteem and a lack of qualifications, welfare recipients often have few reserves – of money or emotional bandwidth – when disaster strikes. Their lives are frequently turned upside down by sudden health issues, the struggle to pay bills, dysfunction in the people around them and frequent moves in search of adequate housing.

Often it is these life shocks, not a lack of motivation, that stops them turning up for job interviews.

Unsurprisingly, punitive approaches achieve very little. Studies of Britain’s increasingly harsh welfare system, for instance, have demonstrated that sanctions don’t get people into paid employment more quickly. In fact, they can slow that process by destabilising already unstable lives. What sanctions definitely do is increase the misery of their recipients – and their children.

Why, then, do sanctions remain popular among conservatives? Because they fit a comfortingly simplistic idea of welfare claimants – and because, according to one survey, most National voters don’t know anyone who lives on benefits.

Although Ardern’s government massively increased beneficiaries’ incomes, it didn’t fundamentally shift public opinion on welfare. Nor did it set out a compellingly new vision for the system.

These are the gaps that need filling. Welfare recipients must be better supported to tell their stories, in ways that allow middle class New Zealanders to understand what the social and economic barriers impeding beneficiaries’ progress are.

A new vision for the social security system, should spell out how it could provide security in tough times: wrap-around support from the moment people need it, adjusted seamlessly and in real time to changing needs and delivered in a way that enhances the recipients’ dignity.

Where paid work is the right goal for beneficiaries, the system would use carrots not sticks, investing generously in retraining programmes to bridge the gaps between the skills people have now and the skills they need, and ensuring the jobs available are high-quality and well paid.

The system would also assert the value of collectively supporting people who are caring for children or grappling with disability – and do so in a way that commands widespread support.

Then perhaps the constant oscillation of policy might finally be disrupted.

Max Rashbrooke is a New-Zealand-based writer with interests in economic inequality and democratic participation. He is a senior research fellow at Victoria University of Wellington.