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Thursday, 10 August 2017

Metiria Turei: Gizza Job?

One of the things that amazed me when I was 18 is that some from my school could've lived to 18 without knowing what WINZ was. Now, sure, my reasons for knowing about WINZ were a bit more personally connected. I remember waiting in the car while my mother had appointments with WINZ. I remember using WINZ for uniforms, glasses and similar. I remember not always being able to pay bills. But still. I'm sure my fellow knew about the dole.

The thing is, when you look at it, WINZ is not a terribly effective version of not just a great idea but an absolutely fundamental one. The welfare state is arguably the defining character of modernity and regardless of one's views on post-modernity, it doesn't matter at all if you don't have a word to describe starving to death: you're still dying. But WINZ is, well, WINZ.

I am reminded of Boys from the Black-stuff. That's a programme from Britain's Thatcher years about unemployed Northerners... who stayed in England (c.f. Auf Wiedersehen, Pet). People like to talk about a "Golden Age of Television" but even ignoring said commentators general ignorance of anything older than The Wire, we might wonder if it's all got just a bit removed from real struggles. The GFC was a pretty big deal, right? Where was the biting commentary? Where were the scenes of whatever Thatcherite Britain's equivalent of WINZ sending agents out to find the "welfare frauds"? Closest I can think of is that poor bastard in The Big Short (a movie) who loses his home because his landlord didn't keep up his end. Or Frank Underwood's ex-chef. But these are throw-away. Television is no longer viscerally depicting real life economic struggle in concept. Or, if it does, society has been so unbuilt no-one cares.

In theory, means-testing sounds like a great idea, right? After all, WINZ has a limited budget so it should try and be efficient. Thing is, means-testing is a function, which means it is a job, which means it incurs costs. That is, means-testing means that you have to worry about administration costs. Or, in other words, you spend money doing stuff that doesn't actually help you achieve the main thing, i.e. providing a system that isn't just there to catch you, but one that puts you back on your feet and keeps everything (and I do mean everything) chugging along. WINZ is, as a concept, about helping people. WINZ is Mr Incredible, and government? Well, it's his dickhead boss. Except, this time the dickhead boss can mind control Mr Incredible.

This is, broadly, where you get people talking about Universal Basic Income. If everyone gets a universal sum, no questions asked, you don't have to pay anyone to ask questions. Logically, this is how you really do make something like WINZ into a lean, mean problem-solving machine. After all, now you can deal with intractable issues with a soft-touch.

(Charities can do this too, by the way. For instance, Andrew Carnegie's deciding to minimise the unhelpful admin costs by having the philanthropy happen with an endpoint in mind strikes me as basically the same idea.)

One of the last times my mother was getting some kind of benefit/assistance from WINZ, she was basically being made to jump through hoops to find a job. Sounds reasonable, right? People who can work, and who need money, ought to work. Except, the reason we want people to work is so that they're better off. The money will keep flowing up and around whether it comes from WINZ or Job ACME: that bit doesn't matter. What does matter is the personal and social implications (finances aside... obviously any kind of cost is economic). Which is why WINZ was in the wrong here. But even if you ignore that, my mother was a "productive member of society" at the time... she was volunteering with regular hours. Which is to say, even with means testing, the regime in which WINZ is forced to operate creates absurdities counter to both its real point (i.e. helping people & society), and the role ascribed to it by people we might term Thatcherites (i.e getting people to work).

(Obviously this is a middle-ground view. It doesn't have the more specific/efficient set of tasks for WINZ that UBI brings, but letting beneficiaries use volunteer hours, with WINZ essentially serving as their employer, does create a soft touch that actually helps. This "compromise" is Mr Incredible not telling that little old lady the ins and outs of the perverse system administered by the aforementioned dickhead boss.)

At this point I should note some really critical things about my personal situation. My mother is a land-owner. Aside from a brief few months prior to my fifth birthday when we were renting, we've been owner-occupiers. Intermittently on the benefit, yes, but owner-occupiers nonetheless. How? My mother's father is a reasonably well off dude, and this helps a lot. And when my mother was sick, I was able to live with some of my second cousins, no worries. Not everyone has family members of means and not everyone is able to leverage familial connections in this way. And if you are renting, your life has another element of uncertainty introduced to it. Even better, my mother worked from home for a long time while I went to schools within walking distance: minimal travel costs! And we had a car. Things, in short, could have been a lot worse. And for many people? Well, they are.

(Yes, this background is one of the reasons I am disgusted when people compare keeping up with the Joneses to the stress of pay cheque to pay cheque existence or even more tenuous personal existence. And, yes, this happens. I read an NZ Herald article doing this a long time ago now. Similarly I am angered by a lot of the "poverty stricken student" discourse because it frequently (a) ignored all those students who qualify for student allowances despite living in the "comforts" of "home" and (b) frames issues that are bigger than just students purely within discourses of the student.)

The question that all this begs is: what do people do?

Look, if you can "defraud" WINZ to create a situation where we can't distinguish its behaviour from how it really ought to be behaving given its real purposes, you're a God-damned hero. WINZ is not, at the moment, fit for purpose (either its real purposes or the misleading efficiency paradigm's) so the kind of fraud that makes it look like it is? Well, how is that bad? Actual welfare fraud is when you're doing stuff that white collar criminals with fancy lawyers (heck, just knowing lawyers is fancy... let alone employing some) do. And while you shouldn't break the law, living in a democracy means laws aren't sacrosanct so I'm never going to apologise for believing in both (a) welfare "fraud" and (b) fraud involving WINZ. Nor should anyone put in such a situation.

Let's put it this way... no-one's going to blame a bull for wrecking the china shop when the truck rear ends the shop window and lets him out. So how can we blame beneficiaries when it's us who set up the situation where all they can do is walk into the china shop? You have to make a move: not eating is literally dying.

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