The real point of welfare: making work work well

There are two sorts of beneficiary: the can’t-works and the won’t-works. The point of modern welfare policy is to turn won’t-works into will-works and give can’t-works the chance of some work.

Instead, most of the argument we have heard over the past couple of weeks has been therapeutic hand-wringing, punitive vengeance and superior paternalism.

Pita Sharples may have won hearts and minds for his tears on television, David Benson-Pope a brownie point for his attacks on “clusters” and John Tamihere a hoot from the self-satisfied with his version of food stamps.

But that was feel-good politics. A dog mauls a child. A psychotic kills a child. Something must be done.

Horrific one-offs are not the context for debating welfare policy. Welfare is about wellbeing.

A person’s welfare is made up of a number of ingredients. Chief among them are material wellbeing, a sense of belonging to the surrounding society and an immediate family group (however defined) and spiritual integration.

A government cannot — and modern societies have decided should not — do much about spiritual integration beyond a regulatory system which does not force people to be what they are not. Governments have limited direct scope for creating a sense of belonging (though real education helps). They can do a lot about material wellbeing, which in turn can help with a sense of belonging.

Paid work is at the heart of material wellbeing. On that both Labour and National and most other parties agree. Being able to sustain yourself and family through your own efforts is the economic core of a society.

Decent paid work for fair pay was the core of the post-1935 Labour government’s programme. The unemployment dole was a transition measure. Only in the 1970s did the benefit system become a widespread means of subsistence, a substitute mechanism to enable “participation” in society.

In the 2000s Labour has been giving more weight to paid work. Go to Work and Income for help now and you are first asked about plans to get into or back to work. Calculating entitlements under the benefit system comes second.

There are small financial incentives for starting paid work and, for those who turn that into permanent employment and get off the bottom rung, a large tax advantage under Working for Families. Sanctions are now occasionally applied to won’t-works. There is a (so far scantily-successful) programme to enable can’t-works to be some-works.

Now meet National coming back the other way. In the 1990s a crude work-for-the-dole scheme was trialled but for most it did not lead to permanent work. The rules were punitive and created perverse incentives. Don Brash’s proposal that beneficiaries line up at post offices in the morning for compulsory work was a throwback. Katherine Rich, dissenting, departed as shadow welfare minister.

Judith Collins took her place but made little mark before the election. Expect more.

Collins took herself, new MP Paula Bennett (a solo parent made good) and a researcher to Canberra and Sydney last month to look at the work-for-the-dole scheme there.

The phrase excites hot emotions in this country, in part because of the 1930s and 1990s experiences when, for many, “mutual obligation” amounted to not much more than punishment.

But in Australia both major parties back it. Why? Because, Collins says in a report to fellow-MPs, it seems to deliver value to participants.

Collins says the scheme is “costly — not a cost-saving measure”, though it does flush off the benefit those who have had paid black-market work.

Those unemployed more than six months have to work two days a week for their dole, leaving three days to look for paid work. They go into a “multi-disciplinary process” on how to get into paid work and earn credits for training. For those who may never be able to get paid work the programme gives some self-esteem.

Collins adds: “Our focus should be on encouraging people to contribute to the community that supports them, not merely making people work for the dole.”

So, she says, one-off community-based projects, such as building a children’s playground, painting a girl guide hall and designing a website for an autism group are better than long-term projects with no end in sight. They have start-finish dates and give participants a result for their work.

The work is found and administered by non-government agencies, such as the Salvation Army, which have more flexibility and community-connectedness than state agencies.

Collins has not found a silver bullet. At the least she would have to change the name. Her report’s relevance is in its emphasis on real work and on using organisations which have community vigour.

It is a more intelligent approach than National offered in 2005. Put alongside Labour’s greater pragmatism, that signals more common ground between the major parties and so some possibility of more settled policy in due course.

That won’t stop child abuse and killings. But it might enhance welfare.