More meaningless numbers

It’s that time of year when the Government trumpets the success of its welfare reforms. Look! they cry, benefit numbers are down! The repressive, labyrinthine, victim-blaming system works!

I’ve written before about the way National have perfected the art of throwing out context-free figures, knowing they’ll be interpreted as “proof” of something.

It always makes me think of another quote from Pratchett:

“Samuel Vimes dreamed about Clues. He had a jaundiced view of Clues. He instinctively distrusted them. They got in the way. And he distrusted the kind of person who’d take one look at another man and say in a lordly voice to his companion, “Ah, my dear sir, I can tell you nothing except that he is a left-handed stonemason who has spent some years in the merchant navy and has recently fallen on hard times,” and then unroll a lot of supercilious commentary about calluses and stance and the state of a man’s boots, when exactly the same comments could apply to a man who was wearing his old clothes because he’d been doing a spot of home bricklaying for a new barbecue pit, and had been tattooed once when he was drunk and seventeen* and in fact got seasick on a wet pavement. What arrogance! What an insult to the rich and chaotic variety of the human experience!”

The point is, the only thing you can really say when you find footprints in the flowerbed is that someone stood in the flowerbed.

And the only thing you can really say when the government cries “there are 13,000 fewer people on benefits” is that there are 13,000 fewer people on benefits. You don’t know why, unless they also produce figures on where those people went – how many moved into permanent jobs (and have stayed in them), or emigrated to Australia, or simply vanished from the records?

And you absolutely do not know that “the reductions we’re now seeing will mean fewer people on benefit in the years to come which means we’re going to see healthier, more prosperous households.”

The only basis for that statement is ideology: Anne Tolley thinks benefits are unnecessary handouts which stop people from being ~incentivised~ to feed their children through work, ergo people not being on benefits must mean economic prosperity.

Or at least, that’s the argument she’s peddling.

But because most people outside of the Cabinet are basically good-natured and compassionate, it works: we assume that benefits exist to help people who can’t work, and they stop getting a benefit when they’ve gone into work. And we assume “work” means a good, steady job. So a drop in benefit numbers must be a positive thing!

If we got the real figures – how many people were forced into terrible jobs, only to lose them 89 days in and be placed on a stand-down, or how many people just gave up and turned to begging, or how many people were so bullied and demoralized by WINZ that they’re making themselves sicker by doing work their doctors say is unhealthy for them – we would have a very different idea of the “success” of National’s welfare reforms.

That’s why they pretend that only the numbers matter.

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