Thursday, 18 July 2013

Acting With Intent

Rolling Back the Curse of  Unemployment

In New Zealand we have begun a welfare "shakedown".  The approach is not Big Bang; rather the strategy has been to change a number of "at the margins" structures.  Taken together, however, they amount to a significant move in the right direction.

The core problem with state welfare is that it rapidly creates a psychological and material dependency.  Crudely put, getting paid for doing nothing makes more sense--it has greater marginal utility--than getting paid for blood, sweat, and tears (that is, work).  Why work when you can get paid for doing nothing?  People who enter that matrix are not dumb.  They are making a smart, rational choice from the perspective of economic utility. 

Of course most folk have a sense that the morality of the deal is not quite on the square.
  From the perspective of economic rationality, being on welfare is the best option.  From the perspective of conscience and morals, not so good.  Conscience on this matter ends up being suppressed the longer one is on welfare--a process which takes a number of forms.  One is to forge a doctrine of entitlement.  "It's society's fault that I do not have a job (skills, education, etc)".  Shifting the blame to the community creates a grievance for which the one harmed needs to be restituted.  Welfare then gets framed as a payment which is owed.  This is deadly poison, creating an enormous barrier to usefulness in the workplace.  Folk tell themselves they would happily work if there were worthy jobs available.  Society has an obligation to provide the job to which one really is entitled.  Further, attitudes evincing a demanding truculence hardly serve to market oneself successfully to prospective employers.

Another form of repression of conscience is to put the blame for being on welfare and not in work squarely upon oneself.  "The reason I don't have a job is that I am useless."  One does not have to be a genius to work out where that leads: depression is an enervating affliction which immobilizes and imprisons.  It, too, salves the conscience with another deadly poison. 

To these barriers another is quickly added: not working becomes a habituated lifestyle.  The habits that make a good employee (punctuality, reliability, regularity, enthusiasm, energetic application) are quickly lost, if they were ever gained.  Another significant barrier to getting off welfare dependency arises.

Economists and sociologists tell us that when the Clinton administration in the United States was forced to run budget surpluses by Congress, the president had to become to become a champion of  finding work.  The Clintonian Doctrine became, "You have to get a job."  It is reported that this simple moral imperative was extremely powerful in changing expectations and activity.  New Zealand has now embarked on a similar course.  We expect that if allowed to run, it will likewise be extremely compelling and very useful to getting people off welfare rolls into employment.

The NZ Herald has published a report on what impact the reforms (and these, we believe, are genuine reforms, rather than mere changes being packaged as "reforms") are beginning to have.
. . . every sole parent interviewed in Papakura in the past three weeks already feels under pressure to look for work. That pressure will increase from today for those with no children under 14 who will come under "intensive case management" with a personal case manager to help them find work.

Papakura - which has the highest welfare dependency rate in Auckland - was already one of 24 Work and Income sites in a trial of intensive case management of 10,000 beneficiaries since last October. Work and Income says 3516 of them have already found work.  In the past year up to the end of May, Papakura's benefit tally fell by 8 per cent.
The requirement to find a job is making people adjust their lifestyles and plans accordingly.  Without the pressure of expectations and demands from the welfare authorities, it is unlikely such changes will ever be made.  Consider the following example:
Sharon, a sole parent whose youngest son has just turned 14, has a 25-hours-a-week school-term job as a teacher aide but gets a benefit in the holidays and is being pressured to find fulltime work. She is reluctant to take on more hours on weekdays.  "My youngest is now a teenager. He's at that impressionable age where he could go astray," she says.  "But from July 15 if they say I'm not earning enough, my suggestion would be that I'll find a job in the weekend. He would have to go to my niece's place. It's different in the weekend because there's family that's available, his dad sees him at the weekends."
And another example:
Danielle Devcich, who has been on a benefit with her 6-year-old son since her relationship broke up in January, started a six-month computing course three weeks ago after Work and Income threatened to cut her benefit a second time for not attending a seminar. Enrolling in the course saved her benefit.  "It has been all right for me because I had always planned on not being on the benefit forever. It rushed me along a little bit, I suppose."
Purposeful planning and adjustments and new arrangements--all critical steps to finding and staying in a job.  The demand, "you have to find a job" is having a powerful effect.  But there are lots of constructive supports as well to help people get out of the trench of unemployment, over the parapet and into work.
Mary Smith, who runs Papakura's St Vincent de Paul foodbank, sees people redoubling efforts to find work. "The other day I had a lady in who was panicking because in July things are going to change and she's trying to get a job," she says.

Papakura Budget Service manager Denise Smith says staff at the local Work and Income office are "very proactive. The place is buzzing when you go in because they are running all these seminars. The changes have motivated a lot of people. They are learning to budget because that is something they have to do. We are seeing a lot of people becoming more independent."
There are no silver bullets to this problem.  There is only change at the margins.  But the encouraging thing about this reform is  that the approach appears to be more comprehensive and integrated, so that the left hand really is pulling in the same direction as the right. 

Unemployment is a terrible curse.  We always were made to labour.  It is part of what constitutes human dignity.  We were made to work, for we are made in God's image--and God is always working.  The way back to employment can be painful, requiring a great deal of application and effort.  But at its foundation must be a moral imperative that work is not optional.  It is a requirement.  When the authorities start to say it, and show that they mean it, and comprehensively demonstrate their intent, the impact is immediately palpable. 


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