Considering newborns

I’ve blogged before about some of the issues with our social welfare system which have been getting attention, thanks to great people like Sarah Wilson at Writehanded.

Labour and the Greens have been fighting these fights too – though this being an election year, they’re getting even less traction than they normally would. Unfortunately, our only hope of a real change in the way the state treats beneficiaries depends on a strong progressive turnout at the election in September.

Take this revelation from the Greens: after hammering the Prime Minister in the House about the lack of support for newborn babies – if their parents are silly enough to be on a benefit in a time of 6% unemployment, that is – they found a directive had been issued to MSD ordering its Chief Executive (and thus its staff) to “consider” whether a person had a newborn when applying for hardship assistance.

It’s a classic National manoeuvre. Ask them a straightforward question like “is there support for all newborn babies in New Zealand?” and get a straightforward “Yes” – with several significant caveats that altogether add up to No.

The obvious point: having your child’s needs “considered” when you’re applying for additional assistance is a very long way from the straight-up cash-in-hand parental tax credit everyone else gets. It’s a maybe. It’s just part of another process which has nothing specifically to do with supporting children.

But more insidiously, I think you can make the case that telling WINZ staff to “consider” newborn babies’ needs makes things even worse.

No social security net worthy of the label should have to have it spelled out that newborn babies create extra stress and greater need for families who are already struggling. Even in the purest, most generous of systems, supporting newborn babies and their families isn’t an optional thing.

And we know very well – because everyone seems to know someone who’s got a terrible WINZ story or two – that our system is far from pure and generous.

This is a callous box-ticking exercise by a government which really, really does not seem to care if you’re struggling to feed your children. I just hope that people will start to see that those in our communities who are on benefits deserve every bit of support we can give them.

And even if we can’t shake off all the myths and misconceptions and prejudices, at least we can say that babies deserve a decent start in life, however poorly we think of their parents.

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