Minister of Social Development not enabling social development


I find the Government’s inaction on welfare to be quite baffling. Sure they have only been in office for 2 years and National had 9 years, but by now I would have thought that some substantive policy at least would be starting to make itself known to the voting public. By the same time in the Government of Prime Minister John Key several basic policies existed in outline form, which would be fleshed out over the following year.

In 2011 a person on an unemployment benefit got $204 per week. A student on a study allowance was paid $180. Thus, as I found out when I started studying for a Certificate of Business Applications at Vision College, I took a $24 per week cut in income, which across 20 weeks would have been about $480 less.

In June 2018 there were 277,000 people on the benefit. We will assume it was still $204 per week for the unemployment benefit and make that the median benefit. For 52 weeks, that is about $2.94 billion across those people. If we increased that to $250 per week across them it would come out at about $3.6 billion, which is an increase of $662,584,000.

With a surplus of $7.5 billion I think we can comfortably afford to do that.

Respectfully Minister of Development Carmel Sepuloni might mean well, but she is a Minister with completely the wrong priorities. Yes, I get that mental health is important and that we need to invest more in programmes that address its effects. Yes I get that losing someone because they committed suicide is a horrible thing.

But this is more like ambulance at the bottom of the cliff kind of stuff, when the accident – the mental health emergency – has already happened.

Ms Sepuloni would do much better to increase the benefits for several reasons, not least:

  • National did not top them up during their 9 years in office
  • Rents have significantly increased in that time and benefits have not kept pace
  • The benefit increases will help found mental health assistance for those on low incomes that might not be affordable currently

But not only should the benefits be increased substantially, they should also be indexed so that they adjust with inflation and not get slowly eroded away.

National recycling old ideas, expecting different results


We are less than a year away from either Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern starting second term in office or Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges becoming Prime Minister. As one has a disappointingly average term in the halls of the Beehive, the other is reviving policy in order to look tough for the elections that look decidedly unoriginal, old and boring.

The old ideas thus far include:

  1. A crack down on gangs in New Zealand, including denying members social welfare benefits if they cannot prove they hold no illegal income or assets
  2. A crack down on welfare including a time limit on the dole for under 25’s

And they have added some new ones, which follow the trend set by the old benefit bashing routine National is well known for. They include fines for parents of school drop outs and truants.

Many of the truants and drop outs come from families where schooling was never a high priority in the first place. They might well be students with parents who work all day until dinner time or later, who are not around to help with homework, cook dinner or organize supervision for under 14’s. The punitive fines that National are proposing fail to recognize a simple fact: the parents or caregivers might not have the money, or if they do it might well have already been sucked up by other expenditures.

Unless National recognize this, which I have no reason to believe Mr Bridges will, there will be only quite limited positive impact on truant and drop out numbers.

As indicated in earlier articles, one of the best ways to reduce the gang issue is to first understand the how and why of their existence in the first place – gang’s do not simply exist because someone got out of bed one day and say “I’ll start a gang today”; the disenfranchised people who join them generally do so because there is no love, no guidance in their lives. When this gets tackled we can start to take National seriously on dealing with gangs.

If National continue this trend of old social policies getting recycled in the hope of different outcomes, there are others we can expect to see Mr Bridges and company reconsidering.

  1. The punitive 3 Strikes regime will get tougher to act as a deterrent, whilst running the risk of becoming like Washington State in the United States where a person on third strike went to jail for 25 years for stealing a car. Yes, it was a dumb thing to do and yes one might reasonably expect a person to have learnt from their previous strikes, but it does not change the fact that 25 years for stealing a car is manifestly unjust.
  2. The badly needed and long overdue changes to the Social Welfare Act and other legislation that the Ministry of Social Development and its umbrella agencies operate under will remain rigidly archaic, which will increase the risk posed to W.I.N.Z., Housing New Zealand and other social agency staff
  3. Employment contracts legislation will try to reverse gains made under Labour

I hold little hope for National whilst they maintain this archaic outlook on policy making. Are they really so bereft of new ideas as to not be able to come up with anything that has not already recycled three or four times? It is almost like they do not want to be in the 21st Century where ideas that were fine in the 1960s-1990s are now well and truly out of date.

 

Social Workers: Unappreciated workers in an unappreciated discipline


It must be tough being a social worker. Certainly New Zealand First Member of Parliament Darroch Ball certainly thinks so. In the general debate in support of a Bill of Parliament to allow foster parents or kin carers to approach Kiwi Saver to open an account on behalf of a foster child in their carer, Mr Ball alluded to the work done by social workers.

I agree with Mr Ball. Being a social worker is like being on a high rope above a pool infested with sharks. All of them would have you for dinner in a flash if you fell off. Somehow a social worker has to navigate a mine field that has any number and range of devices – distrustful parents/guardians/caregivers, a community quick to judge, terrified and/or stressed out children, among others.

They always have to be right in the eyes of everyone, who quite forgetting – possibly deliberately – that they are as human as we are, will most probably make a mistake they end up regretting at some point in their career. And even when they are right, are making all the right decisions and their clients are making progress, how many have actually heard someone say “hey, look mate, I know your job is a hard one but you are doing your best – keep it up”. It would make their day in ways I don’t think anyone but the worker in question would be able to appreciate.

They are meant to be the eyes, ears and trained practitioners doing work that increasingly teachers and other professionals such as General Practitioners who come into contact with children seem to be doing. And whilst these professionals can certainly be useful – a teacher who is dealing with a child that used to be well behaved and is now disruptive would be right to want to find out what is going on in their background.

Without doubt they have strict responsibilities to uphold. And just as in any employment there are one or two rotten apples who are just there to play the system or cause as much trouble as they can. Each case is going to be different from the preceding one.

The attrition rate must be high. Under paid, under valued, under staffed, under resourced would all be things that are true about the profession of social workers.

Parliament claims to care about social workers. And maybe it does, but how many of the 120 M.P.’s that sit in the chamber have actually sat down with a social worker in a neutral setting over coffee and just talked to them about their daily routine, the rewards and challenges that they face? And how many of them have talked to Child Youth and Family managers and tried to find out from the middle man what challenges their staff are reporting?

So, say what you will about social workers but they are probably in terms of the humanities, the least appreciated, most overworked and under paid people. But they do not need to be like this. We can do better. And if we want to improve the social statistics for New Zealand children, our mokopuna, our whanau, we must help our social workers.

Labour fails to act on welfare report recommendations


In August 2017, hot on the heals of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern becoming Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition, co-leader of the Greens Metiria Turei took a gamble. She admitted in a speech where she laid down the case for complete reform of Work and Income New Zealand that she had committed benefit fraud.

The nation was stunned. The Greens were understandably horrified, especially when she mentioned it had not yet been paid back. A political revolt was brewing. One of the brightest rays of hope in the Greens was flushing her career down the toilet and trying to take the party with it. To any Green member that gurgling sound must have sounded like something from a horror movie that had become too real for their liking.

But maybe it was a political master stroke in disguise whereby she would end her career, the Greens would get a new co-leader – though I honestly thought Mrs Turei was alright – and the Greens would use her credibility to get a promise of reform from Labour. Master stroke or not, that is what looked like happening.

Until Friday. On Friday the report that was meant to recommend widespread reform of the Ministry of Social Development and its umbrella agencies was finally delivered 20 months after Labour formed a coalition and 21 months after Mrs Turei’s shock announcement. The hard done ever suffering honest folk who deal with Work and Income on a daily basis and the similarly suffering folk who work there must have been quietly thinking that this would be the day when the Government would announce sweeping reforms to enact the changes recommended.

Quelle horreur!!! Jaws dropped to places where hydraulic assistance will be needed to get them back. Hearts sank to the the deepest recesses. The hopes of thousands dashed by a pathetic flimsy announcement that only three of the recommendations in the report would be adopted by the Government.

The temptation to blast the Greens for having gone along with this is there. However in fairness to them they managed to squeeze out in the 2018-19 Budget a significant amount of money. When added to the promises Labour made to its own members and $3 billion to New Zealand First for regional development, the total amount of money that is locked up is substantial and does not leave much spare change behind. The Greens might have to just bite a potentially painful bullet and accept that this is not going to happen rapidly – and as one who has been messed around by Work and Income, I can understand the frustration of those who might have benefited from a bigger effort to implement the recommendations.

Instead it is Carmel Sepuloni who finds herself in the sights of this blog. After a year of relative inactivity in terms of getting policy passed and implemented, to come out and say that just three of the recommendations are going to be implemented, this is really a massively wimpish response. It could be forgiven if there is an election year promise or something more in either this years or next years Fiscal Budget. Otherwise when Ms Ardern reshuffles her cabinet, I don’t fancy Ms Sepuloni keeping hold of the Social Welfare portfolio.

Labour not doing enough about M.S.D.


The Ministry for Social Development is the umbrella agency for Work and Income New Zealand, Child Youth and Families Service, Studylink and other agencies. Holding the Social Development portfolio is something only a National or Labour M.P. generally gets to do so.

Labours start so far in overhauling the M.S.D. has so far been rather nondescript. Sure they have not even completed their first 200 days, but I was hardly impressed with the response I got from the Minister for Social Development, Carmel Sepuloni to a letter I sent concerning the state of the Ministry, the need to overhaul the legislation governing it and the agencies under it. Whilst the letter did not come across as patronizing nor do it come across as fully understanding the depth of the problem from the perspective of clients.

The death’s of those Work and Income staff in Ashburton was avoidable. Not only were Work and Income found to be culpable for poor security features and lay out, the culture of how staff treat clients can be at times toxic. Some staff are warm and friendly. Some ask how your day is going, whilst others have the hostility of U.S. Customs officials – your mere presence is somehow annoying and troublesome whilst others seem decidedly disinterested. How a staff member presents themselves is critical since the relationship of client and case manager is built on trust, which cannot be established if one or the other is not at ease. There will never be a justification for murder ever, but the motive for such senseless acts can potentially be derived from the poor treatment of clients, especially where their long term well being is at stake.

The toxic culture in itself though might not be entirely the fault of Work and Income. The governing legislation is quite prohibitive in parts, leaving no allowance for human nature. The computer systems, obviously defined by the physical parameters in which they were designed appear to lack a few basic checks and balances. When I asked for assistance following the cancellation of my benefit and being subsequently forced into the financial red, my eventual assistance was delayed two weeks when I could only wait two days because a staff member had failed to hit send on an electronic form enabling my assistance.

There are notable issues of waste inside the Ministry of Social Development and its umbrella agencies. I was called in 2012 to meetings where a number of clients would all sit around a table and tell a case manager what we had done to try to find work in the past few months – we had to be able to provide a list of employers that we had applied for jobs with. After going around the table and stating what we had done, the staff member would give us a spiel about which sectors s/he thought we would be best finding jobs – “right now there are two industries, you can get jobs in – the others are a waste of time: hospitality and construction”, said one staff member at one of these meetings, which perhaps fittingly seemed to be on dreary winter mornings. After 20 minutes or so, one would walk out and go back to their daily lives none the wiser than when they walked in.

Another instance was getting referred to a contractor working for Work and Income New Zealand. This person was a consultant working somewhere in eastern Christchurch. He was meant to help me with my Curriculum Vitae and Cover Letter, which someone at Work and Income thought needed improving. I found this funny then and I find it funny now that the consultant who I was meant to see took one look at both and actually admitted on the spot that as the two go, both were in pretty good order and he could only suggest minor improvements at best.

Granted these problems were five years ago, the letter from Ms Sepuloni seems to have completely dodged the questions I originally asked. I will try again, but I am not getting my hopes up.