New Leader, Same Old?

We have a new Prime Minister – or do we? John Key may have been the front person for the National Party, but he was not driving policies. It is widely acknowledged Bill English did that, and he is the new Prime Minister. The question is, can Mr English sell his policies as effectively as Mr Key did for him?

Mr English masterminded the Social Investment approach to social services. He deduced that it would be cheaper to fix people’s problems than to support them indefinitely. That much is true. He and his advisors also correctly assumed that because poverty, unemployment, and other social issues still exist in New Zealand, existing interventions were not always effective. This is also true. The issue is their approach to fixing this.

The Outcomes Model, or Social Investment approach, is a complicated mix of information sharing and statistical reporting requirements imposed on social services to prove that what they are doing is effective. Effective programmes are defined as those that achieve predetermined outcomes on identified ‘at risk’ people and families. Since this is a Treasury-driven initiative, those outcomes mainly revolve around getting people off benefits or reducing the amount of paid support they need.

Mr English’s new deputy, Paula Bennett, is known for her ‘carrot and stick’ approach to those in need of state assistance. Imposing sanctions on beneficiaries deemed not trying hard enough to find employment has made life difficult and demoralizing for both those supported by our social services and those working in the social services. There are not enough jobs to go around.

Neither Mr English nor Ms Bennett seem to have considered what drives people to seek support from social services in the first place – poverty caused by the lack of a liveable income. Benefits that are too low to live on, jobs that don’t pay enough to live on, the now exorbitant cost of renting or owning a home that has far outstripped the earnings of low and middle income earners.

These are the issues that must be addressed. Recent research has shown that other problems tend to solve themselves once people have enough money to support themselves. Even, surprisingly, alcohol and tobacco use may decline, and healthier food choices may be made.

Mr English and Ms Bennett’s approach to social services is to apply band-aids to wounds that require stitches and a tetanus shot, and tell the patient to be more careful in future. Somehow John Key managed to sell this to the voting public for them.

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