Monday, 15 August 2011

Playing with matches

The New Zealand blogosphere is all a-twitter with John Key's welfare plan for teenagers on benefits. I have some lengthy thoughts, but first I'm going to link to a video: The Intervention - Witness - Al Jazeera English

I'v already linked this a couple of times on Twitter and a week or so ago on Google+, but I think it's particularly relevant right now. It's nearly an hour long, but worth it - it covers the intervention program in Australia which took control of the incomes of Australian Aborigines in the far north of the country and the fall out from it. Obviously there are differences to what John Key is proposing - for starters we're not going to be taking away jobs that young people already have - but it's important viewing.

The thing about National is that I can't trust they've thought any of their policies through. The complete shambles of the Skynet law proved that. And that leaves me with a lot of questions about this one. What is this supposed to achieve, exactly? Are they also going to make a push to teach people budgeting skills, or are they just going to do it for them? Is there going to be room in the system for birth control, and if so, will people be able to choose the one that suits them the most or will they only have a few options? (eg, a certain dollar value a week might be good for condoms or the pill, but not an IUD, which is a cost outlay to begin with and then no more for years) What happens when something unexpected comes up that needs to be paid for - most people will sit down and make a decision, like, maybe I'll spend a bit less on food and put off paying the power bill until Tuesday. Will beneficiaries be able to do the same thing, or are they just screwed? Have they actually considered the fact that 16-17 year olds can't legally buy alcohol and cigarettes anyway, so if they're doing so it must be through a method that isn't necessarily going to be affected at all? (Note in the Intervention video, at one point a shop owner says that though he's been losing money, alcohol sales haven't changed at all. It's the food sales that suffered.)

Even aside from practicalities, I have little doubt they haven't given serious consideration to the emotional affect of something like this. In essence, we'd have people leaving high school ready to join the adult world, and then finding that if they can't get a job they have to go into this system where they're treated like small children. If we want to beat them down and humiliate them, it's probably a good policy. If we want to build resentment, it's great.

I really can't help but notice that the only people who think this is a good idea are those who think people want to be on a benefit. Look, I can't speak for everyone, but I can speak for myself. Being on a benefit is hell. For starters, your income is far less than a minimum wage full-time job would give you, and it's still less than many minimum wage part-time jobs would give you. Beyond that, though, there's the constant worry. How do you explain the gaps on your CV? In my case, how do I explain my complete lack of references even from when I was working? I had a nervous breakdown at work, and then somehow went through two more jobs before finally realising I couldn't actually keep going - as a result, I don't have anyone from back then who'd even say neutral things about me, let alone good. Most unemployed people don't have that problem, but that's another issue with this system - it treats everyone the same, when everyone is not the same. Then there's the self-blame and confusion. Am I really on this benefit because I have to be, or am I self-sabotaging? If everyone's saying this is my fault, are they right? Maybe I am just useless. Maybe I shouldn't even bother. Maybe I should just live down to their expectations. It would be easier than trying to prove myself over and over again and never, ever managing it. (In the case of teen parents, I suspect, but don't know, that this might be even more common. Society hates teen parents.)

Ultimately, this policy does nothing to address the real issues. It does nothing to create jobs. It does nothing to teach young people skills. It does nothing to give them confidence in themselves, to find their strengths, to help them realise their goals. It's just a looming dark pit, right behind them, waiting for them to make a single mis-step. Given ongoing events in the UK, given the financial crisis in Greece, given the growing inequality in New Zealand and the repeated outbreaks of preventable illnesses and the high numbers of young people without futures, this is going to do nothing but doom us. And I, for one, am terrified for the results of this election. I have no realistic hopes that Labour will beat National, but all I can do is hope that their majority is slim enough that they need a coalition - and not just with ACT.

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