Saturday, May 29, 2010

"Requiem for an Armchair"

Another highly readable post from Winston Smith about the inutterably inane cossetted environment of supported housing for Britains problem youth;

Requiem for an Armchair

I have just returned to work in the Supported Housing project I currently work for after a few days away and have been informed that we need to do more work as a team to ensure that we can evidence that we are complying with the government’s Quality Assessment Framework. This explains the new posters around the building. One of which is trying to promote resident involvement in the running of the project. The poster tries to encourage the young people to become involved by offering such glib pronouncements as ‘No idea is a bad idea’. What about those residents whose ideas lead to ingesting large quantities of drugs and/or shoplifting or disturbing other residents and neighbours? Do I have to appreciate their ideas as well?


Budget blustering and desperate-for-attention MP

Did you suffer from a lack of information about the budget? Apparently Palmerstonians did and Labour expects government MPs to go up there and explain it to them. At least Palmerston North Labour MP Iain Lees-Galloway does. He is 'OUTRAGED' that National held a $30-a-head breakfast meeting for its supporters where expenditure committee chairman Craig Foss spoke about the budget.

"Information about the Budget and the opportunity to ask questions of a government MP should be accessible to everyone by right," Mr Lees-Galloway said.

So the next few months should see a Budget tour of the provinces?

"It is absolutely deplorable that taxpayers who are funding the Budget ... are being asked to pay for this presentation.

But they aren't! National Party supporters are. Unless of course Lee-Galloway is factoring in the speaker's salary.

Mr Lees-Galloway said the Labour Party would host a no-charge public meeting in Palmerston North about the Budget and its finance spokesman, David Cunliffe, would speak.

So who will pay for that? Don't taxpayers stump up for Cunliffe's salary as well?

Then an apt comment from Craig Foss on hearing that Mr Cunliffe's meeting would be 'free'.

Mr Foss wasn't surprised – he thought people wouldn't want to pay to hear Mr Cunliffe.

Ouch. I imagine the vainglorious Mr Cunliffe will be wishing his colleague had kept his trap shut.

Friday, May 28, 2010

UK bad, but NZ worse

The Brits have just issued a gloomy report called the State of the Nation report: Poverty, Worklessness and Welfare Dependence in the UK. It is spilling over with sombre stats.

I have scanned two of the graphs from their section on family breakdown. They should have included NZ. It might have made them feel a tad better.

The first claims the highest European teenage birthrate;

The second claims one of the highest proportions of single parent families in the OECD:

The last is very interesting. It depicts the proportion of children with behavioural difficulties according to their family background. LP = Lone Parent.

It should be also recognised that those with behavioural difficulties also cause and experience a compounding effect because they tend to be clustered together in the poorest deciles. Now someone will tell me that their difficulties are to do with material deprivation. Somewhat. But studies have controlled for this and the poorer outcomes for children with single parents hold when considering families with equivalent incomes.

(Hat tip to Anne Else for bringing the report to my attention.)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

WINZ moving more people from invalid's to sickness benefit

Remember this story from last month?

Work and Income has quietly started bumping dozens of people off the invalids benefit, months before tough new work tests officially come into force, say beneficiary advocates...

... Beneficiary Advocacy Federation spokeswoman Kay Brereton said there had been a dramatic shift in the past few months in the way the regional health advisers worked.

"Initially [in 2007] we saw people who were on the sickness benefit being picked up and put on an invalids benefit because their conditions were long-term and severe. Now we are seeing a dramatic shift the other way...

...North Shore advocate Pam Apera said she had seen a huge increase in people being bumped off the invalids benefit in the past four months, with an average of 10 cases a week this year."

I asked for the relevant data under the OIA and here it is graphed;

There's a trend but it is hardly "dramatic" and an average of "ten cases a week" in one area is highly unlikely.

However, there were 767 people transferred from an invalid's benefit onto a sickness benefit in 2009. This is considerably higher than the average annual total for the period 1998 to 2005 of 262. (I don't have data for the interim period.) So it would appear that the instruction to apply eligibility criteria more rigorously has been followed. The Auditor General should be pleased. From last year's report;

As part of the Working New Zealand: Work-Focused Support Programme, the Ministry put into practice a number of changes in September 2007 to improve how it determined eligibility for sickness and invalids' benefits, and to actively manage cases through regular and effective contact with people receiving those benefits...

We recommend that the Ministry of Social Development:

7. Broaden the criteria used to refer benefit applications to regional health advisors and regional disability advisors so that, as resources allow, more cases can be reviewed for ongoing entitlement to the sickness benefit or invalid's benefit

9. Review the circumstances of longer-term sickness and invalids' beneficiaries to better identify those for whom work is an option, and provide them with appropriate case management and employment-focused services;

The changes happened under Labour. Not National. And the advocates that want to take a class action against WINZ for anticipating the Future Focus legislation wouldn't, in my opinion, have a leg to stand on.

Cheaper to leave them on the DPB

More groups have trooped before the social services select committee lambasting the government's Future Focus Bill. Again most of the focus is on the expectation that a single parent should work part-time to help support their children after the youngest turns 6.

Child Action Poverty Group researcher Donna Wynd further questioned the targeting of those who have spent many years on the benefit, saying it would be cheaper to leave them where they were.

Cheaper still not to have let them onto a benefit, and to stay there for many years.

She later clarified that she was referring to long-term beneficiaries who probably suffered from substance addiction and mental health problems, and who needed intensive - and expensive - wrap-around support.

"If you're not prepared to do that, you might as well leave them where they are because no one is going to give them a job, and if they do, they're not going to be able to keep it."

Ah, the soft bigotry of low expectations...

Ms Wynd had earlier told the social services select committee that the reforms "coerced" solo parents into work and had no regard for the 220,000 children living in beneficiary households.

Of all the motivations for reforming the DPB, improving the lot of children is the most important. Again this is CPAG at their most arrogant. Only they know how to improve children's lives and that is through bigger welfare incomes. Never mind that the DPB has deprived many of a resident father or exposed them to a string of poorly motivated substitutes. Never mind that the DPB has caused more poverty than it has cured.

She did not think work was a way out of poverty for those on welfare unless they could get stable well-paid jobs, but most could only find low-paid, often temporary jobs.

So if work isn't the answer then it must be more welfare. But if more welfare is given, more children will grow up on welfare and their expectations will be based on their environment and in 20 years time the advocates will still be calling for more welfare. More welfare is an ever-expanding downward spiral.

These statements remind me of the resistance and admonitions prior to the US reforms. Poverty would grow, crime would escalate, child abuse and neglect would worsen and homelessness would snowball.

Didn't happen. And in general single mothers are better off . Yes, some are struggling but the hard cases are not simply abandoned. Most importantly children are now learning that getting a job is what you do in life. End of story.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Two silly girls

In need of some light relief from the gloomy weather, here are my two silly girls having fun. Coming from a working career as a sheep dog the hairy one has fit in very well. Ordinarily I wouldn't hold with dressing up a dog but this one just loves the play and attention. She is still an overgrown pup.

Hone Harawira on Three Strikes

Hone Harawira speaking against the Three Strikes Bill makes a couple of interesting points;

Mr Speaker, prison statistics tell us that even though Maori are only 14% of the population we are 50% of the prison muster, and have been so for more than 20 years, but if you think that's bad, believe me, this 3 strikes bill is going to make it much, much worse because without decent rehabilitation programs, first strikers and second strikers will carry on getting it wrong because they're not learning anything, they're simply reacting to problems in the only way they know, and they're gonna get hammered.

And because I suspect a lot of people in this house don't believe me, I recommend that they read the countless reports which vividly detail the historical tragedy of systemic bias and outright bloody racism against Maori in respect of arrests, charges, convictions and jail sentences - reports which tell us that given equal numbers of Pakeha and Maori being arrested for similar incidents, the ones who are more likely to get charged are the Maori ones, reports which tell us that given equal numbers of Pakeha and Maori going to court on similar charges, the ones who are more likely to get convicted are the Maori ones, reports which tell us that given equal numbers of Pakeha and Maori being convicted on similar charges, the ones who are more likely to get sentenced to jail are the Maori ones. and reports which tell us that given equal numbers of Pakeha and Maori getting sent to jail on similar charges, the ones who are more likely to get the longer sentences are the Maori ones.

I accept there is a degree of racism inherent amongst the police and in the courts. However the overriding reason Maori make up 50 percent of the prison population is that they are, to use Hone's term, committing crimes and appearing in court in equal numbers. If they were committing crime and appearing in court at the same rate as non-Maori they would be appearing in unequal numbers.

Mr Speaker - it's a short-sighted man who thinks that legislation sending people to jail for a long time reduces crime rates; it's a blind man who sees justice in sentencing people to life for responding to circumstances they have little control over; and it's a bloody fool who thinks that this bill will do anything else but create frustration, anger and violence within our prison population, an anger that will explode at any reason and at any time, because when you're in jail for life, the only question you consider when faced with conflict is not "what can happen to me if I do this" no it's "what else can they do to me?"

And when politicians talk about a safe society, let me ask this question - what about the next generation who have to grow up with the children of those who have been jailed for life, children who grow up with a deep-seated and very real hatred of society for a life below the margins that they have been forced to lead, a hatred that will be visited back upon society through ever-increasing rates of mayhem and murder.

Here I believe Hone is on quite firm ground. If you attend a court and listen to Maori speaking bitterly amongst themselves about the Pakeha system you will quickly realise why their young are likely to follow suit. I even heard one angry man urging another to bring his kids to court to see what they could expect when it was their turn. The chance that a Maori child will follow a parent or other relative to prison is higher as shown by the following table (respondent = prisoner);

I full well know what Three Strikes is supposed to achieve but my instincts about what the unintended consequences will be would have made me vote against the bill.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Report highlights value of work

Media Release


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A paper will be launched in Auckland today by The Royal Australasian College of Physicians entitled, 'Realising the Health Benefits of Work'. According to welfare commentator Lindsay Mitchell the report claims that two thirds of sickness absence and long-term incapacity is due to mild and treatable conditions.

"This claim would help to explain why the number of people who rely on a sickness or invalid's benefit has increased dramatically over recent years. Conditions that might not have kept people from work 20 or 30 years ago are now considered grounds for claiming some form of incapacity benefit."

"Post-war the number of people claiming a sickness or invalid benefit remained steady but fell as a percentage of the population (see below). However, since 1980 the numbers have risen steeply. At March 2010 there were over 140,000 people relying on a sickness or invalid benefit accounting for over 5 percent of the working-age population."

Mitchell observed that, "The government's Future Focus reforms, currently before select committee, will legislate changes to eligibility for sickness and invalid benefits but their proposals have already been tried in Australia and have failed to stem the growth. In the US some progress has been made with their Supplemental Security Income disability recipients now tracking in line with population growth. The US has introduced the most stringent reforms of NZ, Australia and the UK. It would pay the Welfare Working Group to investigate how this has been achieved."

"Work incapacity is amongst the toughest problems developed countries face and the report released today will highlight why it is vital that dependent individuals receive the assistance they need to return to or take up work."

Own goal?

Who generated this story?

A high profile public servant who was found not guilty of assaulting a teenager is furious his name has been released on the internet.

The man was granted permanent name and occupation suppression when the verdict was returned yesterday in the Wellington District Court however his name has already appeared on a website. Details about the case are also suppressed.

The man's lawyer, Mike Antunovic, says procedures are in place to protect the rule of law and orders of the court and he would be surprised if they were not put into effect immediately.

Did it originate with the lawyer, in which case it is surely an own goal. Anybody with rudimentary knowledge of the "internet" knows exactly where to go to find the name.

Or was it a response to a reporter informing the lawyer? In which case what responsibility does the media bear or share in publicising the name? And for that matter, myself I guess, for commenting on it.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Understanding inequality

After yesterday's post about the increasing agitation over growing income gaps, right on queue, here's Tapu Misa with another inequality invocation.

Maybe it doesn't matter that the two-thirds of taxpayers who earn under $40,000 (quite a bit less than the oft-quoted average wage of $50,000) will get between 9 cents and just under $10 a week after GST, while the hard-pressed top 2 per cent who've been struggling to make ends meet on $150,000-plus a year will pocket nearly half a billion in tax cuts.

Auckland University economist Dr Susan St John calls the tax package "a very significant shift from progressive taxation". More of the tax burden will now fall on the lower-paid middle and bottom ranks of taxpayers.

This means we're not likely to lose our ranking as one of the most unequal countries in the OECD any time soon.

It isn't at all clear what is intended by these numbers. One interpretation is that two thirds of tax-payers earn under $40,000.

Roughly two thirds of all the people that receive an income receive under $40,000. That is true. But all those people do not "earn" an income. It is paid to them as Super or a benefit. And yes, technically they pay tax but that only amounts to shifting some numbers on the government's ledger.

The average wage from paid employment was $48,360 in June 2009. People in paid employment pay tax on their earnings. They pay tax on their recompense for contributing directly to the economy. That thing we all rely on to keep us afloat.

Inequality, as epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue in their 2009 book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, hurts us all. As well as links to higher crime, ill-health, shorter life expectancy and a range of social pathologies, inequality drives a wedge between people, corroding trust and raising levels of anxiety. Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised then that an annual Massey University survey has found we've become more tolerant of income inequality, even as we've become more unequal.

Perhaps the reason New Zealanders have become more tolerant of inequality is because the last 30 to 40 years has shown that even as equality of opportunity has increased many have failed to take advantage. Perhaps they are more tolerant of inequality because they perceive growing numbers of people who appear to be the cause of their own misfortune.

If we lived in a country where the vast majority of people worked, and they were getting pitiful wages I too would be jumping up and down about inequality. Had I been alive in the 1930s I would have been a socialist. But we have been down that track of government intervention to give everyone a fair shake of the stick and it hasn't worked. The result has been the bedding in of a large group of permanently poor people.

325,000 working age people are on a benefit and if their children are counted the number rises to over half a million. And even during the economic boom, when NZ briefly boasted the lowest unemployment rate in the OECD, the number was only 20 percent lower. That's a major cause of New Zealand's inequality.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Some Sunday morning 'big picture' thoughts

How often are you reading about the growing inequality in NZ? The phenomenon is blamed for social ills, crime and poor health. Labour wanted NZ to become a version of a Scandinavian country where people pay high taxes and receive many benefits and that would tend towards equalising incomes. Working for Families was part of the plan to become the natural party of government by locking in the franchise. And it looked like their plan had almost succeeded with National morphing into Labour anyway. However....

The budget did reinforce that National, to a point, are prepared to accept that inequality goes hand in hand with economic growth (as Matt McCarten points out today).

So why can't NZ be like those countries where there is a greater degree of economic equality?

Because it is peopled by very diverse individuals and groups, with diverse values (which ironically Labour encouraged). And rapid social change like the sexual revolution hit NZ when it was still very young. So NZ does not have a long history of shared values, or even common religion, and there is certainly a 'them and us' class mentality afoot fostered by the left and very pervasive. This results in people treating the redistributive social policies with disdain instead of appreciation. Instead of understanding that social insurance can only operate successfully when it isn't gamed, too many see it as a right or a way of getting back what the nasty capitalists took or kept from them. Or even what the government took from them.

It is fruitless to hanker after the European style social security philosophies and systems, which are coming undone anyway with immigration and changing demographics.

Inequality is NZ's future. The trick is to lift everyone up a few notches rather than force everyone down. And as the country gets older, values will probably become more homogeneous which should act as a counter-balance to extremes of wealth and poverty.

Political realities of welfare reform

This article appeared in the UK Telegraph. It outlines what the UK needs to do about welfare according to Richard Wellings of the Institute of Economic Affairs. His proposals are of the Ruth Richardson variety. James Bartholomew points out the obvious reality that the proposals are politically difficult. And that's the crunch. Unless there is a political consensus, or a government prepared to be very radical within one term (which risks policy reversal by the next government) little can be achieved. Which is incidentally why I abandoned any political ambitions in favour of trying to influence a consensus of opinion (which is how the US achieved abiding change and they have a way to go yet).

Even Margaret Thatcher didn’t manage to dismantle Britain’s disastrous welfare system.

Judging by the policy plans of the Lib-Con coalition, there is little reason to be optimistic that today’s leaders will be any more successful. The timid proposals on welfare are little more than an expansion of existing failed programmes.

It is unsurprising that welfare reform has presented such a problem for successive governments. The six million working-age adults who now receive out-of-work benefits – plus millions more over-60s receiving generous pension credits – comprise a large voting bloc. Labour would have risked losing its core support had it attacked benefit dependency.