Jobs! What are they good for?

Your brighter future, New Zealand:

A Wellington employment training centre has had its Government contract abruptly pulled because it did not focus on placing people in the hospitality, aged care and call centre sectors.

More details at Stuff.

The closure of the Bowerman School is a real puzzle. It helped many people not just find any jobs, but good jobs – relevant jobs, fulfilling jobs, jobs which could lead to a career they enjoyed.

Bowerman said her students had ranged from people who had never worked, to architects and two doctors who came through the course last year.

The difference between her course and others in the region was that Bowerman would do “whatever they actually needed”, in terms of jobseeking support.

“Whether that was getting them first aid certificates, or haircuts or clothing. Just whatever was required.”

Bowerman said most of their students were also in the older age bracket.

“First, it’s so bloody hard, especially if you’re over 50 these days, to get a job. But they’re unable to go into hospo, they’re not going to go into call centres, and aged care facilities actually want trained nurses now.”

It also makes no sense in light of the rave reviews it was getting from the agency which funded it:

So what’s going on? Why the narrow focus on “hospitality, aged care and call centres”? It makes no sense!

Actually, it makes all kinds of sense. Because this government has shown, time and time again, that it doesn’t care about good jobs or careers or skills, only forcing people off benefits so the current Minister of Social Development can crow success.

This government shut down night classes, sneering about Moroccan cooking. They sneered at the Training Incentive Allowance, which gave single parents (like my mum) the ability to get a degree. They sneered at anyone over 40 who needed support to retrain or upskill through tertiary education.

So of course you can’t have a jobs centre which supports people to flourish as talented innovative creators. That would ruin everything.

This can sound as conspiratorial as you like, but the logic is pretty simple: an uneducated, desperate minimum-wage workforce is easier to exploit. People who don’t have a lot of qualifications have more difficulty changing jobs. People who are paid at near-minimum wage after 20 years on the job don’t have the luxury of sitting back and pondering the big questions of democratic governance. And people whose only other option is being bullied and micro-managed for a pittance by WINZ aren’t going to complain too much when their breaks get taken off them or their holiday pay is short.

And it’s far easier for the kinds of people who give the National Party lots of money to leech short-term profits off a service-based economy. Why build anything real when you can just put 19-year-olds through a meatgrinder of youth rates and rolling 90-day trials?

The thing is, everyone does better when wages are good, when broad-based education is available to everyone, and when skilled jobs and a solid manufacturing base are what generates the economy – not a bunch of wealthy people flipping each other properties while the rest of us make their coffee and drive their Ubers.

But building the foundations for that kind of economy takes time, and resources, and a view more long-term than next quarter’s balance sheet.

It requires the ability to understand why the state exists in the first place, and knowing that the most important thing in the world is people, not profit.

When you don’t believe that, well. Shutting down a successful jobs centre is just the logical thing to do.

 

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Anne Tolley desperate to screw down beneficiaries even further

So for 18 years, people who have been on stand-down periods from benefits – i.e. forced to stretch whatever savings or credit or charity they can access just in case they’re not really in desperate need of paying the rent or buying food for their kids – have been consistently underpaid.

Radio New Zealand reported Work and Income had underpaid some beneficiaries by a day since 1998, as it had paid people from the day after their “stand-down” period ended.

When people applied for a benefit, they often had to wait two weeks for it to start.

Work and Income was meant to pay a beneficiary from the day after the two week period ended, but instead had been starting payments the following day, RNZ reported.

And the government’s response to this persistent underpaying of poor and vulnerable people, who are already expected to live on less than it actually costs to live?

The Government was now trying to retrospectively change the law dating back to 1998, when the provisions took effect.

Of course they are. As many people have said in response to this article, if WINZ found out you’d been over-claiming for a day’s benefit since 1998, you’d be in jail, castigated as the worst kind of bludging, greedy parasite.

When WINZ has been stiffing beneficiaries for an extra day’s benefit for nearly 20 years? Oops, better make that all go away really quickly, we certainly don’t want people to think they’re entitled for restitution after being simply, wilfully, defrauded by the government.

(Unless they’re Saudi millionaires who totally reckon they were promised cushy trade deals.)

In fact, they’re going to “fix” the law not by making WINZ obey the damn law, but by changing it so everyone has to wait one day more before they can get the government assistance they desperately need.

This matters. We might be tempted to say “oh it was ages ago for some people and it’s not much money per person”. But benefits in this country are already at unsurvivable levels. The New Zealand Council of Christian Services says:

Real net benefit rates compared to the real net average wage have declined steadily and significantly over the past 30 years and are at levels that leave people in poverty. The Working for Families package has helped wage earners but this has further increased the income disparity between the waged and unwaged.

Benefit levels do not allow families to feed, clothe and house themselves adequately. For example, the PIP Update Report found that the disposable income of food bank clients (most of whom are reliant on benefits) is barely sufficient to cover the estimated food costs required to feed a family of two adults and two children.This leaves little or nothing for other household costs.

And that PIP Update Report was completed in 2007. We’ve had a bit of a global financial crisis since then. You reckon things have gotten any easier?

This government, and Anne Tolley in particular, have declared “success” for their punitive welfare reforms because the numbers of people on a benefit are going down. And that’s often what makes the headlines: benefit numbers down! Economy obviously hunky-dory! But when you dig beneath the numbers it’s clear this government hasn’t achieved anything meaningful. Thousands of people are being lost in the system because they haven’t managed to complete the (obscene amount of) paperwork to renew their benefit. Others may be checking out because the system is so – deliberately – difficult to navigate.

This is just wrong. It’s inhumane. It’s cruel and unnecessary. That’s why we have to talk seriously about the role of the state in supporting every person who cannot be in paid work, for whatever reason. We have to challenge the rightwing idea that paid work is the only valuable contribution a person makes to their community and society. We have to get real about new ideas like a universal basic income. We have to stop, absolutely stop, walking into the trap of blaming beneficiaries for broader economic circumstances or pussy-footing around about whether the poor are “deserving” or not.

We have to do better than this.

Back to the future: Brian Easton on benefit abatement rates

Hat-tip to Sarah Wilson on Twitter for linking to this 1995 piece by Brian Easton on the “unintended” consequences of abating people’s benefits when they get part-time work – to the extent that it’s just not worth getting “off” the benefit at all.

John stopped persevering with the job, when he discovered he was not being paid for it. The employer paid him a fair wage, but John was on the unemployment benefit. When he reported his additional earnings, the Income Support Service reduced (abated) his benefit. After he paid income tax too, he was left with 2 cents of every dollar he earned, not enough to cover even the cost of the bus fare work. In the economist’s jargon he faced an “effective marginal tax rate” (EMTR) of 98 percent (plus the costs of the job). There was no financial incentive for his working, and so he gave it up. John has been trapped into unemployment by the abatement rules of his benefit. There are many like John.

The problem of high EMTRs has always been there, but things have changed since 1972 when they last went under a major review. In those days jobs were easier to find, and it was not necessary to build up a series of part time jobs to obtain a full time one. Under full employment people jumped from a benefit (if eligible) to a full time job, so the high EMTR in between did not matter. But that situation rarely applies today.

Yet, our Income Support Service, handing out unemployment benefits worth over a billion dollars a year, is still basing its abatement rates on the assumption that there is full employment. Meanwhile, the strategy of reducing taxes on those with high incomes has meant the revenue has to be raised from the poor by putting up their EMTRs. If one’s heart bleeds for the rich facing a disincentive from an income tax rate of 33 percent, why the hard hearted view that a 98 percent rate will inspire John to get a job?

The abatement rates aren’t as bad today as they were then – but the top rate is still 70 cents on the dollar.

How on earth can we blame people for being on benefits when there simply isn’t fulltime work available, and when they’re financially punished for taking part-time jobs? (Oh, and we’ve removed the support they need to study and “improve” themselves, and even if they’re sick we’re going to force them to undergo humiliating checks-and-balances just to make sure their chronic illnesses haven’t magically disappeared.)

Easton notes that the idea of what we now call a Universal Basic Income would address some of these issues. Hopefully we’re a lot closer to that becoming a reality than we were in 1995 – but not much, I suspect.

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.

Numbers are meaningless when families are living in cars

Housing affordability was an issue in the election – but the discussion was derailed by arguments about the intricacies of capital gains tax and exactly how many hundreds of thousands of dollars constitutes “affordable” house prices.

This is the real story, which is now getting some post-election coverage in the Herald.

Salvation Army Manukau community ministries director Pam Hughes said some families were now paying more than 70 per cent of their incomes on rent, but could not keep up payments and came to her service in crisis.

“We are seeing an increase in families in vehicles. Families in cars have been increasing over the last three or four months, simply because there isn’t enough affordable accommodation for them,” she said.

The Tuuu family – mum, dad and their six children – have been living in a van for a week because they cannot find a house. …

Tamasailau Tuuu, his wife and their children, aged from 15 to 3-months-old, were doubling up with another couple and their three children in a three-bedroom house after their landlord sold their own rented home in Clendon, South Auckland, two months ago. But their friends asked them to move out.

“She was worried about her tenancy, and the neighbours were complaining about my baby crying at night, and the house was overcrowded and her kids needed their own privacy,” Mrs Tuuu explained.

That’s right – before they had to start living in their car, the eight members of the Tuuu family were sharing a three-bedroomed house with five other people.

Tamasailau Tuuu is a fulltime worker.

Meanwhile, on the Herald’s economy pages, it’s all about the numbers, and how “there’s something for everyone” in a recent Statistics NZ report on income:

A defender of the status quo can point to a 6.2 per cent rise in the average household income from all sources over the year to June 2014. A critic of the status quo can point to a rise of 1.7 per cent in median hourly earnings for wage and salary earners over the same period, or just 0.1 per cent after adjusting for inflation. The year before median hourly earnings had risen 3.5 per cent.

There is an interesting discussion to be had about the way numbers can be used (or manipulated) one way or another depending on the argument you’re pushing. In the run-up to the election, National were trotting out numbers all over the place – more tertiary students than ever before (don’t mention population growth)! Wages the highest they’ve ever been (ignore inflation)!

But there’s something obscene about the way the economic story gets framed: the figures on a page, the points on an index, the number of dollars someone can swap for a number of different-coloured dollars.

I’m sure the following statement will raise sneers; the right love to paint the left as silly ingenues who don’t understand big, serious economics. But I cannot comprehend a worldview which says “all is well, for the numbers tell us so” while families are living in cars, workers are losing their jobs, and children are dying from preventable diseases.

More and more people I know – comparatively well-off people – have being speaking out post-election about setting up automatic payments to charity organisations, or emailing journalists who write stories like the one above to offer direct assistance to the people whose plight makes it into the media. It’s a compassionate response. It does some real good. But it’s also a sign that we have fundamentally failed as a society.

Private charity isn’t even an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff. It’s a bandaid over a gaping wound. It can’t even begin to cover the damage caused by the decades-long erosion of our social welfare system. It does nothing to prevent that damage from happening in the first place. The only thing that does is a strong social welfare system, which treats people in need with dignity and respect, instead of suspicion, and is motivated by real success – not the numbers of people the Minister can claim “have moved off benefits”.

When we only talk about economic numbers and measure our success in percentage points and turnover, we erase people. And when we can’t even make sure every person has a home and can feed their kids, those numbers are meaningless, and continuing to use them is a crime.