Is Working For Families really ‘Communism by Stealth’?

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The Communist Ninjas that Matthew Hooton fears

Matthew Hooton (19th July, NZ Herald) trots out the tired old John Key scarecrow of ‘Communism by stealth’ to debunk Working for Families (WFF). Hooton even wants to blame WFF for the nurses’ strike and low productivity.

“A major but overlooked cause of the low-wage economy driving today’s worsening industrial strife is Helen Clark’s flagship 2004 Working for Families policy.”

Of course, Hooton is being deliberately mischievous. Or perhaps wilfully ignorant?  Or both, plus a tad disingenuous. It would be totally surprising if he actually believes that employers should pay all low income workers more so those with families need no state help. Employers are not known for seeing the costs of procreation and child rearing as their responsibility. They don’t even need to pay for paid parental leave. We will soon have 26 weeks, all paid for by the tax payer, for all who qualify with no means test.  

Did he grow up in the post-war period when his mother got a universal family benefit? Is he too young to remember tax exemptions for children, the plethora of family rebates of the 1970s and 1980s, their consolidation into Family Support, a weekly per child payment to low income families in 1986? Then in the 1990s the Family Benefit was wrapped into Family Support. In 1996 National introduced a new principle: those families ‘independent from the state’ got a $20 per child increase while the undeserving got only $5. The $15 difference was labelled the Child Tax Credit.

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By 2004 family assistance had eroded through neglect and child poverty was rampant. Labour increased Family Support, expanded the Child Tax Credit to become the In Work Tax Credit (IWTC), and called its package WFF.

So WFF was not a new idea. Just like in other developed countries, there was an acceptance that a family with children on a given income does not have the same ability to pay tax as an individual alone on that same income.  Australia has a more generous set of tax credits for families despite it having no tax on first $18,200 earned and exemptions for basics in its GST that is still only 10%.

When Hooton says

“in 2004, the left-wing critique of Working for Families was stronger than Key’s, that it would operate as a subsidy of low-paying employers”

he must be referring to the only critique offered in 2004.  In that year I co-authored ‘Cut Price Kids’ with Dr David Craig for CPAG to highlight that WFF reinforced the deserving and undeserving child distinction. The poorest children were denied a major part of WFF because of their parent’s work status. This is worth $72.50 per week today and has helped entrench deep child poverty where 140,000 children fall under the 40% after housing costs poverty line.

For 10 years CPAG fought this injustice in the courts.

Cut Price Kids had an analysis that has never been refuted nor countered. Ironically Hooton’s example. “if there was a job to do worth $60,000 a year, an employer could hire someone with two kids, pay them just $38,000 a year, and they’d end up with almost the same pay in the hand” seems to be taken out of context directly from Cut Price Kids.   He seems to think there is an effective marginal tax rate of 100% over the range of income $38,000-$60,000 today.

But hold on, that was a 2004 example, in turn taken from North and South, and referred to different tax rates and rules as to how extra income was treated. By 2018, between $38,000 and $42,700 the EMTR is only 17.5%, between $42,700- $48000 is 42.5% and $48,000-$60,000 is 55%.  Not good, but not 100%.

Following the lead of Bryce Edwards, Working for Families is corporate welfare Hooton confuses the left-wing critique of certain poorly designed parts of WFF with a criticism of WFF itself. Make no mistake, the left wing both in 2004 and now, would improve its design and make it more secure and generous.  

But let’s concede that WFF does indeed contain a nasty little twist (called the Minimum Family Tax Credit) that tops up family incomes to around $26,000. Families have to work 20 hours and any extra income from any source including child support reduces this tax credit dollar for dollar.  There are only about 3000 families that access this tax credit- and its cost is an insignificant part of WFF. If you twist yourself into knots, it is conceivable that one or two sole parents might let their employer know that a wage rate increase won’t actually help them.

If there were no WFF, would employers pay much higher wage rates and that would help? I outlined the arguments in my article last week Working for Families is perversely misunderstood. In brief, if the wage rate was high enough for a full-time one- earner family of 4, it would inflate the single person’s income while not being enough for larger families. Family poverty would soar because the amount paid per hour is irrelevant if you don’t have enough hours of work.

One of Hooton’s weirdest arguments is that:  

the most pernicious effects of Clark’s bribe are on those without children trying to save for a first home, such as young nurses, teachers, doctors, and police officers.

There is no appreciation here that families need more income than single people to survive.  Hooton thinks:

When trying to buy a house, childless people also have to compete with those with children, whose after-tax incomes have been artificially inflated by the state

Families on low incomes find it incredibly hard to save for a deposit even with WFF because children actually cost something, and a stay at home parent has to eat too.

Now here’s a really offensive thesis:

“Thanks to Clark, Key and Ardern, the best way for a childless nurse, teacher, doctor or police officer to get an after-tax pay rise is not to work harder, get promoted or even join the union and go on strike, but to get themselves or their partner pregnant.”  

No woman would ever write that because a mother knows that $113 dollars of weekly WFF with an IWTC if she is lucky, is no compensation for the sacrifice she will make.  She also knows that despite WF, pregnancy can be the path to penury for her and the child.

Hooton asserts that

Working for Families then creates a vicious economic and political cycle. As it holds back productivity and keeps wages low, the best electoral response is to expand it further, as Ardern and Robertson did in December. And what better way to stop nurses, teachers, doctors, and police officers from striking than to ensure the ones with children will get nothing out of doing so?

This is so muddled it is hard to unpick. In Hooton’s world, WFF is now the reason we wont have strikes!  But the spreading industrial action he also blames on WFF (see the quote at the beginning of this article).

His final coup de grâce:

It has transferred the primary economic relationship that determines family income from being that with the employer to that with the state. It is indeed communism by stealth. Clark and Cullen knew exactly what they doing when they set it up.

It sounds like Hooton would prefer there be no WFF and be happy with an explosion in child poverty much worse than occurred after Ruth Richardson’s (ill named) ‘Mother of all Budgets’.   Cullen and Clark did know ‘exactly what they were doing’. They wanted to reverse the damage of child poverty. To decry WFF as a wage subsidy, with no viable alternatives to offer, no inkling of the value of unpaid caregiving, no mention of the horrors of the consequences of child poverty makes Hooton’s piece a hollow contribution.

 

19 COMMENTS

  1. A good analysis that covers all the salient points with the exception of perhaps one…the Clark Govs increase in FS entitlements came at a time when the exodus of working aged Kiwis exiting to Australia by the plane load for not only better wages and more job opportunities but also government support….something his paymasters loudly decried at the time and since.

    • Yes Australia don’t seem to have any hang-ups about their family tax benefits– I think Labour made a huge mistake in calling family payments for children paid to the caregiver ‘working for families’. There has been confusion ever since especially as one of the payments is called an in work tax credit. It is not about being in work it is about supporting the needs of children- you don’t even have to be in paid work to get it if your partner is in paid work of enough hours. The IWTC even goes up for extra children in larger families
      .

  2. Communism by stealth eh?
    That’s a very 70s expression so Matthew apparently to reset his time clock.
    If that’s the case I wonder why the previous National government left WFF in place for nine years despite dismantling or watering down practically everything else Labour did?
    Could it be that National secretly supports communism?
    Let’s ask the pretty communists AKA The Blue Dragons.

    • Come on Mike. Even you give National MPs way to much credit. You can pretty much Predict what each of them will say because they read from cheat sheets.

      Simon: “Although it is perhaps unusual to quote from a valedictory speech in a maiden speech.”

      Paula: Makes *eyes*

      Amy Adams: When National was because Labour was (insert irrelevant point here).

      It’s so robotic. All they have to do is mention how finance actually works in the real world then attack there research. And you go high low, high low. Try that for a year or two and then develop a style of your own from there.

      Of you’re constantly being manipulated by haters then you’ll never create continuity and consistency.

    • National seriously watered down WFF to the point where the poverty created had to be addressed- they would have increased WFF too if elected

    • Personally, I am glad they’re axing Nationals Tax Cuts for tax credits. I live in Western Australia (worst tax grab in the country), and getting rid of it means the New South Wales would have to start making serious budgetary and tax reforms itself. But it’s impossible to live in New South Wales like it’s impossible to live in Auckland because of traffic. In Western Australia they do really good hospitals and public transport so I pay the premiums because I know I’m not going to get ripped off in 10 or 50 years.

      As for the rest of it, it’s definitely an ambitious plan. Hopefully they will get it through; the current system is a mess, ESPECIALLY on the corporate side. Just look tax havens, they’ve all got dirt roads, you can’t live in countries with low taxes, tax havens are just for people who don’t want to live there. So it really doesn’t matter what normal people say about taxes. We just want to know that the functions of government will do what it says on the tin. Corporate tax rate of 30%-35% wouldn’t be unreasonable. So yeah, raising flat corporate taxes from 28% to the New Zealand average of 33.95 percent from 1981 until 2018, reaching an all time high of 48 percent in 1986 and a record low of 28 percent in 1988 isn’t unreasonable and well with in Nationals mantra.

      And I think there’s a lot of mums and dads slowly realising the holdings of share holders value and executive pay. And I’m talking about CEO’s buying back there own shares, artificially inflating executive pay and leaving New Zealand’s reputation damaged and a feeling of being let down by politics.

    • Yeah cause those pinko poly tch-tchians are all married and jealous of the disproportional freedoms enjoyed by single folk.

  3. WFF is a wage subsidy and frankly paying people to have kids….if you are single you just get screwed in this country…….

    • “WFF is a wage subsidy and frankly paying people to have kids”

      Oh dear not that hoary old chestnut again!

    • Better to let the kids from poor families starve, Pat? That way only the rich can breed. Is that your vision of a decent society?

      • So if WFF is a wage subsidy, yet the wages aren’t enough to live on, how does one survive. Firstly, don’t have children and secondly minimise your breathing function.

        “if you are single you just get screwed in this country…….”

        National made sure of that, particularly in Auckland.

  4. … ‘ Of course, Hooton is being deliberately mischievous. Or perhaps wilfully ignorant? Or both, plus a tad disingenuous. It would be totally surprising if he actually believes that employers should pay all low income workers more so those with families need no state help ‘ …

    —————————–

    … ‘ Did he grow up in the post-war period when his mother got a universal family benefit? Is he too young to remember tax exemptions for children, the plethora of family rebates of the 1970s and 1980s, their consolidation into Family Support, a weekly per child payment to low income families in 1986?’…

    ——————————

    …’ It sounds like Hooton would prefer there be no WFF and be happy with an explosion in child poverty much worse than occurred after Ruth Richardson’s (ill named) ‘Mother of all Budgets’. Cullen and Clark did know ‘exactly what they were doing’. They wanted to reverse the damage of child poverty. To decry WFF as a wage subsidy, with no viable alternatives to offer, no inkling of the value of unpaid caregiving, no mention of the horrors of the consequences of child poverty makes Hooton’s piece a hollow contribution’…

    ——————————-

    Very well put together piece. However , the neo liberal chickens have come home to roost years ago. We are now paying the price of not reeling in the original and successive proponents of that ideology when we could have.

    I’ve always looked upon WFF as an employers subsidy , – primarily due to things like the effects of the ‘Mother of all Budgets’ and the ‘Employment Contracts Act 1991,… there is no doubt we need it now for family’s, – that AND realistic wage increases.

    Perhaps family’s who have a wage earner can be subsidized more, that does not impact the low wage employer, singles not so much. The costs of supporting a family would balance out somewhat , and that is the price we pay for wanting a functioning society.

    In an earlier time , there was always a recognized need for some form of equity delivered for those with family’s. You have mentioned a few in the top paragraph. And that never changes. It was subsidized through taxation.

    But in this post neo liberal world where wages are unrealistically low , and company’s do not pay their fair share of taxation ( particularly foreign based ones ) and the costs of living are exorbitant , Hootons cockeyed approach seems almost farcical.

    Unless of course, he wants to see more family’s living on the streets and throw a few crumbs to them as he drives by in his expensive automobile…

    • WFF is actually more for ‘working families’ which is one of its major flaws. It leaves really the poor children well behind– evidence all over today’s herald with Salvation army report.

    • I he too young to remember the Nats taxing paper boys and girls for their deliveries, it was only 3 or 4 years ago? Yep Hooten would be too young to remember.

  5. Poor Matthew Hooton, he knows that neoliberalism has so utterly failed workers that the State had to intervene to raise incomes and its an anomaly he has no explanation for. This is a real market failure and his only response is to attack working for families ?. He’s in trouble if thats his only comeback.

  6. Is hooten the problem here? Or is it US who are the problem for letting hooten hoot his toxic brain farts while getting away with it?

    There are always two problems when there is one.
    The first problem is the first problem.
    The second problem is when nothing’s being done about the first problem that’s causing the problem.

    I think it can be condensed down by that old saying.
    ” Evil prevails where good people fail to act.”

    Are we good people?
    If the answer is ‘yes’? Then why do we fail to act? How is it that hooten has centre stage while we’re just a rabble making a racket in standing room only outside? And the more we make an impotent racket the more we telegraph our inability to act which ever emboldens wankers like hooten to hoot on.

    • Mhmmmm… wankers like hooten.

      And he is a wanker… equating WFF with Communism by stealth.

      What a wanker.

      Is he NZ born?

      Did he live here before 1984?

      When we had a social democracy and more or less cradle to the grave security since the 1940’s- similar to the Scandinavians still do ? Did he have a problem with it then when he was a child growing up?

      Yeah. What a bloody wanker.

      Why are we listening to wankers?

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