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People who need a benefit should get it

DEBORAH RUSSELL
Last updated 05:00 21/08/2012
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OPINION: It's easy to criticise the welfare system. Beneficiaries get too much money, too many of them cheat, and it all costs too much. But the unrecognised reality is that our comprehensive health and welfare systems create freedom and security for us all.

Consider the American health system. Nearly 50 million Americans have no health insurance. They can get some care through public hospitals, but other than that, they're on their own. Paying for basic medicines can mean going without food; being hospitalised can result in bankruptcy.

For many Americans, the only way to guarantee access to healthcare is to have a job. Therein lies a trap. If you lose your job, you lose your health insurance and your access to medical care, for yourself and your children. So even people who have jobs can be vulnerable. They must put up with a capricious boss, or do work that they loathe, just to keep their health insurance.

Contrast that with the New Zealand health system. Every resident of New Zealand has access to our public health system, whether they are employed or not. No-one would argue that the system is perfect, but by and large, people who need medical care get it.

The outrages of ill luck can happen to any of us. We are all vulnerable to losing our jobs. Jobs that seem secure, such as working for the Government, can disappear. In a struggling economy, small businesses and large go under, taking livelihoods with them. Even if the economy is thriving, we may become ill, perhaps with a chronic illness that prevents us from working. Arthritis, depression, cancer, multiple sclerosis - there are many diseases that may not kill, but debilitate, so a person cannot hold down a job or run a business.

But should these misfortunes occur, then no matter what, at least there will be money to put food on the table. We need not live in fear of losing our jobs. We are free to make choices about where to live, what work to do, how to engage in relationships, because we know that if we are hit by bad luck, we will be helped. Not through the whim of a local charity if there is one, but because of the agreement that we have made to look after each other in the hard times.

The welfare system is by no means luxurious. It is much easier to live well if you have a job. Nevertheless, our welfare system and our health system give us real security.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to pay taxes have a straightforward reason to support the welfare state: it's simple prudence. One day, it may be our turn to depend on the state.

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But when we criticise people who receive welfare, we are not just imprudent. We also undermine the security of our friends and family members and fellow citizens who depend on the welfare system.

If we complain about teenage mothers, and insist that someone ought to control their income and make them stop having babies, we make every sole mother worry about interference. If we mutter about a person on the dole who spends time working on his house instead of looking for a job, we tell unemployed people that their every action is subject to scrutiny. We become a surveillance society, rather than a civil society. We are ever ready to pop our heads over the back fence, and complain about the neighbours. We turn everyone who receives a welfare benefit into an object of suspicion. That creates a society where no- one trusts each other, and where each person must always act with an eye to staying on the right side of those in power.

Our health and welfare systems are based on need, not some notion of worthiness. If we are in need, we are entitled to assistance, and that means that we may live as free citizens. It means that we are secure from economic fear, secure from absolute want, and secure from the interference of our neighbours. That freedom and security makes all of us beneficiaries of the welfare system.

Deborah Russell is a lecturer in taxation at Massey University. She has recently joined the Labour Party. Richard Long is on leave.

- Wellington

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