From welfare to opportunity — the key to social support

How big is John Key’s underclass? About one in 20 of the population, one social policy expert reckons.

About half the population manages fine all the time. The rest, who include many who are economically deprived, are mostly OK but “at risk” if something goes badly wrong.

On this reckoning, Key was never underclass. He was economically deprived but with a capable mother who got the family out. That is not uncommon but it is also not easy, especially for those not equipped with good education, strong aspirations and self-belief.

At its simplest, therefore, social support policy (apart from the obvious social security role when things go bad) would logically open opportunities for the economically deprived, firmly steer them to the opportunities and underpin their takeup of opportunities with education and other (temporary) support.

Nothing in that sentence would have offended the 1930s Labour party — or a modern liberal National MP of the Key sort.

And both would likely also agree that such a support policy is more likely to stick if it comes free of moral strictures. The issue is not moral correctness but social cohesion and, as a result, a stronger economy and a more civil society. Capitalism works similarly but that is another story.

That is not to gloss the large amount of bad or suboptimal behaviour that needs correcting. Overflowing prisons, high suicide and teenage birth rates, kids going hungry to school or not going to school tell us that. But injecting a moral dimension into social support policy puts the focus on finding the right sticks (“incentives”). Sticks are palliatives, not cures, just as doling out benefits no-questions-asked is.

Sticks are easier and cheaper than opportunity-based action. But over the past decade and particularly the past half-decade policy has given up most of the sticks. The 2000s idea, borrowed from capitalism, is to make investments which give a measurable social and economic return.

At the core are sustainable work and the under-6s.

All beneficiaries other than the terminally or very severely ill or disabled are now, or soon will be, on a work plan — either actively seeking or being found work or in training if there is a strong reason for not working. That all-in coverage is a world first, the Ministry of Social Development says.

The idea is that work is (and pays) better than not-work, especially if there are kids in the household. Beneficiaries keep special and accommodation allowances when they go into work; Working for Families adds some more. School-based after-hours care for children may be added next, as in Britain, to give parents more work flexibility.

Now a fifth of those who turn up at Work and Income with no income go straight into work instead of on the dole. Long-term unemployed are down to a near-hardcore 8000. The rise in sickness and invalids benefits is slowing and domestic purpose benefit numbers falling as more of them go to work.

But is this just because employers are desperate in a tight labour market? What happens when the economy slows?

No one knows yet but there is some reason to think the opportunity-based approach may soften the impact of an economic downturn on beneficiary employment because work is now becoming the norm for people who in the past were just parked on welfare.

That’s the medium-term part. The long-term part is to get more of the under-6s who get a below-par start able to learn better at school so that 10 or 15 years later they are work-ready and not crime-ready.

This is truly expensive. Key’s lunches are just a symptom. Making sure all children are healthy, cared for and get into pre-school education is a big enterprise. While it is a growing policy and spending focus, it has a long way to go yet.

Then there is Key’s underclass: the twilight where adults live half-lives and children even less and all but a few grow into twilight adults themselves. It’s an economic, social and human waste.

Breaking this cycle requires intensive multi-agency work with broken “families”. After success with one such large “family” since 2004 (no suicides, every child in school, some family/whanau relationships restored, a number of adults in work and no longer a police “feature”), eight government and non-government agencies have begun working with 44 families in nine locations.

Backing it will be a big campaign midyear to stigmatise family violence, hoping to change attitudes and behaviour the way the drink-drive campaign has.

The critical factor in all this is that it is not just soft left-liberalism, palliation of the poor, ideological rejection of tougher 1990s schemes which didn’t break the cycle. The 2000s approach is an attempt at evidence-based, results-oriented action.

And it might be reaching the point where it will stick through a government change. Though National MPs will still fire cheap shots, Key did make the underclass the big story of his first 100 days just ended. He needs all the ideas he can get.