The need to reform the Social Welfare Act


How many times have you been into the office of a Ministry of Social Development agency? And when you went in there, were you treated kindly or did you get the feeling that the staff have their suspicions about you and your intentions? If so, as one who has been in that situation, you are not alone.

People want to blame the Department of Work and Income New Zealand for a lot of issues, but it is the legislation that governs the form and function of W.I.N.Z. that is to blame for the performance of the Ministry and its umbrella departments. The constant reforms have been driven as much by ideology as well as a practical need to ensure that those who are delivering the services are only doing so to those in genuine need of help.

The person on the other side of the desk from a client is most likely a person just trying to do their allocated job to the best of their ability. Does that mean that they are going to get it right every time? Of course not – as humans they will make mistakes as well, and hopefully learn from them. But when the best that one of these departments can offer is advice that the Prime Minister made in public and it is in reality, effectively meaningless, then one has a right to two things:

  1. Want to know that their tax payer dollars are being used effectively by the Ministry and its departments
  2. That the services that those tax payer dollars are funding are going to be meaningful tools that actually enable a beneficial outcome

For 7.5 years National has talked about a brighter future for New Zealanders. It has talked about New Zealanders getting ahead. However despite piecemeal chipping away at a problem around the edges, like Labour before it, the Government has failed to address an increasingly acute housing problem and the socio-economic problems that are causing people to need emergency housing.

It is true that some families have their priorities completely messed up, such as those who waste their income on alcohol or drugs. There are those who buy flat screen televisions and nice cars, but who cannot (or will not)put food on the table for their children and spouse. But how did they get there? By choice or by falling through the cracks, perhaps because they lost their job, couldn’t get another one and fell in with the wrong crowd? What about those who have a history – they might have committed a criminal offence or used heavy drugs in the past, but have come clean and are now trying to be decent people?

It is alarming to hear that people approaching Work and Income for assistance getting housing are not receiving it. More alarming still with winter approaching is the fact that there are nearly 100 units that are standing empty when theoretically they should all be full up or have people in the process of trying to get into them. Yes, it is a concern if someone is put in emergency housing and then makes methamphetamine in it or uses it as a tinny house – those people need to be put into a rehab facility first.

Overhauling the Social Welfare Act cannot fix people, but it can fix the type of services provided to New Zealanders. It can fix the job functions, the intended outcomes and how they are delivered by the people who work for Work and Income New Zealand, Housing New Zealand, StudyLink and so forth. When this changes, it might in turn affect in a positive way, the attitudes of staff to their clients and improve on the negativity that is often the cause of a morning tea break gripe session.

But expecting change without looking at, and readjusting if necessary, the parameters of the Ministry of Social Development’s umbrella agencies, is a definition of insanity New Zealanders are only too familiar with.

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