No doubt the suggestions in Dr Liz Gordon’s recent blog piece about Work and Income are well-intentioned, and its refreshing to see some ideas for welfare policy based on boots-on-the-ground research rather than bigotry and posturing. I would be happy to see copies of the service charter on the walls of all WINZ offices, and I totally support re-funding the benefit rights advocacy groups that were de-funded and marginalised by the Key government. But this just gets us back to where we were in 2008. I just can’t see how suggestions like these engage with the full scope of the problem.
Let’s start with a bit of background. The history of the creation and disembowelment of social welfare in Aotearoa is recounted in heart-breaking detail in Alistair Barry’s 2002 document ‘In a Land of Plenty’. This should be compulsory viewing for every kiwi, and I’d love to see Social Studies showing it to their high school students. Rather than trying (and failing) to do justice to this whole story here, let’s just focus on Work and Income New Zealand, lovingly known as WINZ.
WINZ is part of the Ministry of Social Development, not MBIE. But it was the result of mega-ministry reforms, just a bit further back in time. It was Clark’s government who created the current monstrosity, the Ministry of “Social Development” (or MiniSocDev as Orwell would have called it),
by merging the Department of Work and Income and the Ministry of Social Policy.
But where did Work and Income come from before that?
The clue is in the name. Work and Income was created in 1998, when Bolger’s National government merged the Employment Service, which was tasked with helping people with insufficient paid work find more, and the Income Support service, which was tasked with managing the payment of benefits (itself created by the Bolger regime in 1992 when they restructured the old Department of Social Welfare). Other, small departments were also eaten by the WINZ super-department, including the
Community Employment Group and Local Employment Co-ordination (initially WINZ managed student loans and allowances as well but this created such huge bi-annual logjams that Studylink was set up to deal with them separately).
That merger was a bad idea. The same set of case workers should not be tasked with both making sure people have all the social assistance they are entitled to, and making sure they get a job and stop taking it. It’s like trying to merge the retail workers and security guards in malls, so they’re all trying to get people to take stuff (by buying it) and stop people taking stuff (by stealing it) all at the same time. They’re just not compatible functions.
But I can tell you that even though the Income Support Service of the mid-1990s didn’t have to do anything employment related except make sure you were signed up with the Employment Service, they were no better to deal with than the WINZ of today. During the late 90s, I was part of the
Beneficiary Action Collective in Ōtautahi. We would deliver a huge cardboard Bastard of the Month certificate to a local WINZ office that had badly mistreated someone that month. Each month’s “winner” was picked from public nominations, and we were never short of nominees.
I’m forced to admit the attitude of staff towards beneficiaries did improve somewhat during the Clark years, but nothing about the WINZ structure was substantially changed, making it all too easy for Key’s government to flip it back into 1990s mode, then made it even worse. With staff who are either incompetent, abusive, or disciplined for being too helpful and moved to dealing with superannuitants. By contrast, I have dealt with the IRD on a number of occasions over the years. Despite what foaming-at-the-mouth propertarians say about their dealings with them, I have found IRD staff much more reasonable, respectful, and consistent than those at WINZ.
Reflecting on about 20 years of dealing with WINZ on and off, this is what I think needs to happen. Firstly, WINZ needs to be abolished. The mild reforms of the Clark years prove that it’s far too politicized to be reformed without just being deformed again by the next government. It’s a failed model. Just bin it.
Thirdly, all the Ebeneezer Scrooge discretionary benefits that require people to fill out yet another multi-page form every time they need some food, or new clothes for interviews, or medical care their benefit doesn’t cover, need to be abolished too. The funding freed up by doing so needs to be used to lift base benefits. They need to roughly doubled, so they become liveable again, and pegged to inflation so they go up automatically each year. Ideally in a way that would require future governments to undertake major reforms to change.
The income support functions of WINZ need to be handed over to the IRD, along with the funding currently given to WINZ to administrate benefits. IRD would treat benefit payments as non-recoverable “tax credits” (right-wingers love tax breaks). Accidental overpayments would simply be
added to the tax bill at the end of the year, rather than counted as evidence of “fraud” when no actual fraud has taken place.
The employment advice and work brokering functions of WINZ need to be handed over to a new Employment Service, under the control of the Department of Labour (I refuse to call it “Employment NZ”). At the same time, the Department of Labour needs to be broken free from MBIE and restored to independent Ministry status. It needs to be tasked with funding and creating fulltime paid jobs for anyone struggling to find sufficient work in the private sector, including by supporting the establishment of worker-owner and customer-owned cooperatives that can employ people in secure jobs.
The remaining MinSocDev needs to renamed to something that reflects what we really need in a poverty-prevention service. How about the Ministry of Social Justice? Or the Ministry of Social Equality? Ministry of Poverty Elimination? A name that makes it clear that it’s role is to identify and fix the structural holes in the flooring of the system that reproduce poverty, not to discipline people for having the misfortune to fall into those holes.
The public servants who are displaced by these reforms need to be offered a choice. They can be be re-deployed elsewhere in the public service where their skills and institutional knowledge can make a positive contribution, or take voluntary redundancy and try their luck in the private sector. This isn’t about beating up on public servants (or the PSA), but we have to be realistic that while some of the people working at MinSocDev do the best they can within a system that is broken by design, others should never be put in a frontline situation dealing with vulnerable people. Ever.
Anyone who isn’t thinking this ambitiously does not understand how unfit for purpose Work and Income is, all the way down its rotten foundations. Or they do understand, they just don’t really care to get this country’s social welfare house in order.