OPINION: Observing the wailing and teeth-gnashing that has accompanied the latest welfare reforms, a visitor could be forgiven for assuming the Government is hellbent on introducing Dickensian-era workhouses to New Zealand.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The new sanctions unveiled by Social Development Minister Paula Bennett are not an attempt to deny assistance to the children of beneficiaries, but to ensure they get it.
Yes, beneficiaries who do not comply with the new regime will have their benefits slashed, but only if they fail to do things that are manifestly in the interests of their children. Those things are: ensure they receive 15 hours a week of early childhood education from the age of 3, ensure they attend school from the age of 5 or 6, ensure they have access to a GP and ensure they undergo basic health checks.
For the overwhelming majority of the country's 125,000 beneficiary parents, the new regime will make not a jot of difference. What parent does not want their child to gain an education or be seen by a doctor when sick or injured? For the small minority who would rather the way they treat their children remain behind closed curtains, the new regime may well prove inconvenient. That is not a cause for dismay, however, but celebration.
Every child deserves a decent upbringing and the opportunity to develop to his or her full potential. Simply handing money to bad parents is no guarantee that their children will be fed, clothed or loved.
The wider Kahui clan was reportedly receiving more than $2000 a week in benefits when 3-month-old twins Chris and Cru suffered the injuries that caused their deaths. There is no reason to believe that more money would have made a difference. Similarly, four adult beneficiaries were living in the Rotorua home in which 3-year-old Nia Glassie was mortally injured. Would larger state payouts have prevented her from being stuffed in a tumble dryer, beaten and hung from a clothesline?
The problem in both cases was not the level of state support, but values. A small section of society has so lost touch with the notion of right and wrong that it does not even recognise the obligation to take care of its own.
The minister's reforms are an attempt to fix the problem by using benefit payments to remind those tempted to neglect or abuse their offspring that with rights come obligations. By any standard, the new "social obligations", which will take effect next July, are measured, moderate and compassionate. Beneficiaries will not be penalised for failing to use services that do not exist in their areas and, before any sanctions are imposed, they will be given three opportunities to comply with the new regime. Furthermore, the minister is promising the speedy restoration of entitlements once failing parents do the right thing.
Instead of condemning the new measures, Labour, the Greens, Plunket and beneficiary advocate groups should be applauding Mrs Bennett for having the courage to tackle a problem that decades of well-intentioned but ineffective policy-making have failed to remedy.
- The Dominion Post