Why I’m saying No to the ongoing use of Benefit Sanctions in NZ

Politics. Dare I say it, it’s potentially the most detested of all the professions anyone could choose. So you can imagine my own sense of trepidation about stepping into this space and putting my hand up to participate in what many describe as a merciless blood-sport – or as my mother-in-law once said, a rubbish tip.

Why on earth would I do it then? Particularly given the many opportunities and avenues available to me at this particular juncture in my career and life. It doesnt make familial sense. It doesnt make financial sense. It doesn’t make practical sense. But I’m doing it, nonetheless. Why?

Because I believe that the role of the State is first and foremost about enabling, supporting and facilitating good outcomes for its citizens. All of its citizens.

And if it was as simple as that all would be well right? But herein lies the rub: differing takes on what is ‘good’ for citizens is what makes the difference between the way in which the State can both knowingly and unintentionally cause ‘harm’ to the citizens for whom it is responsible. And that is why Party politics is important.

As 20th century sociologist Max Weber wrote: the modern state is “that entity which successfully claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence”. Violence which is institutionalised, rationalised and bureaucratised” (Runciman, 2014).

And what better example in current New Zealand politics is there of institutionalised violence, legitimised by current government policy and enforced through law: than the use of economic sanctions on sole parent caregivers receiving social security support?

These are New Zealand citizens who for one reason or another are just trying to get by (the majority of whom are women, and often in circumstances where they’ve left violent and abusive relationships) – and the State (via WINZ) has been using the sanction-stick because ideologically National party policy supports the theory that the threat of sanctions is necessary in order to make beneficiaries ‘independent’ of State assistance.

And while on the surface the idea of ‘independence’ might sound great – consider that at no time since the sanction regime was introduced has the National-government a) defined what independence for these caregivers and their children looks like from both an economic or social perspective or b) monitored and measured this. In order words there are no meaningful KPIs, except to get people off the benefit and therefore assume they are independent and better off. So on the one hand, threaten and punish, on the other hand look the other way.

So in the meantime while National has taken great pains to emphasise and highlight the large number of people ‘going off benefit’ in recent years, it has done nothing to demonstrate whether these same caregivers and their children are in actual fact better off as a result. Well I guess from a cynical political perspective they don’t know what they don’t know and they don’t have to defend what they don’t measure?

Yet while I’m no University academic, my reading of the results from the Annual Child Poverty Monitor report findings, the Growing Up in New Zealand longitudinal study findings and Auckland Council’s Homeless Policy Project – would suggest that the current social policy approach being applied by National and implemented through MSD is actively contributing to the creation of an entrenched generational poverty gap in New Zealand.

Now that’s a scary idea. What kind of government would knowingly implement policies that were actively contributing to negative social outcomes? (As an aside, given the millions of tax payer dollars that have been paid to some private sector motelliers in the absence of adequate state-funded emergency housing, some people might say the kind of government that views social crisis as a means for generating economic opportunity,  but who knows?)

These are questions that every New Zealand citizen who is eligible to vote needs to ask themselves in the lead up to this election. Because until we change the system Mend the Safety Net and start recognising the important contribution that caregivers make to a functioning, modern democratic society and economy, the cost of pretending otherwise, is only going to grow and become more and more apparent as we collectively grapple with the wider consequences and ramifications. Something I cannot stand by and allow  – not when it comes down to the harmful impact of these policies on the lives of New Zealand children.