30 July 2012

Welfare Woes

by Dr Nicola Hoggard-Creegan

These days I often don’t know whether I’m reading the Guardian, the New York Times or the New Zealand Herald. Times are hard and governments are hitting the poor and the unemployed. It is certainly not the Kingdom of God we are experiencing. The poor, the young, the disabled and the unemployed did not cause the economic mess we are in, but they are the ones who are suffering. Governments seem to think that benefits and the welfare safety net are just for good times; in bad times we can withdraw them or make access really hard. The fact of the matter is that in the hard competitive consumer culture we live in there will always be people who just can’t make it. They are failures in the system, but in the inverse logic of the Kingdom of God these are the most important people, the ones who might turn our world upside down. The relationship between State and Kingdom of God has always been complicated and fraught. As Christians we do not have political power but we should be very clear about what we should be pushing for in terms of social policy. Christians should always be on the side of the oppressed. The oppressed in this society are those who cannot find work.

The unemployed or marginally employed suffer one of the most acute forms of oppression possible (see Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference).This form of oppression is not directly aggressive or discriminatory. Instead, as an unemployed person, you become a non-person, hidden from the general run of important conversations and activities in the society you live within; you simply have no place at all. Often your lack of status precludes your forming significant relationships.

This oppression is experienced by the elderly who would like a job or feel the loss of status they once had, but it is also felt keenly by the young for whom there is no work of any kind available. Youth unemployment rates are at crisis levels. New Zealand is at 16%, as is the USA. The UK has 21% of the young unemployed. These statistics do not show those who are studying because they cannot find a job and can’t find part time or summer work and those who are in relationships where a partner is working. Spain went from 16% to 50% youth unemployment in 5 years. That suggests we need to act now as a society to change a worsening situation. New Zealand is small enough to do it, but we first need to stop blaming the victims.

Well, you say, of course there are jobs if you look hard enough. There are little part time jobs available, and there are real openings, but only to those who have average or above average levels of initiative, enthusiasm, drive, good looks and optimism. This is what it takes to front up to a cleaning or dish washing job where there are 200 applicants. Even graduates are chasing menial work these days. There are also jobs for those who are well connected. This is often how work is procured in difficult financial times. If you are depressed, are a minority, have a learning disability which makes all life hard in any case, a difficult background, are struggling with personal issues, have suffered really bad luck, or have low levels of energy, then finding a job is well-nigh impossible.

What the vulnerable young need is work. They need ways into the workplace. They need work experience. Yes they also need budgeting advice, and tips for surviving in the workplace, but not someone to buy things for them or to control their money further so that they can go on languishing without meaningful work. We must createschemes that can give meaningful work experience to those who cannot find it themselves, those who are unemployed and under 25, or have never had a job. There must be a variety of public works, care giving, animal work, beautification projects, urban produce gardens, or work for charities like Habitat that could use young labour and creativity. If work can be found for those who have to do community service it should also be possible for those who are unemployed and want to work.

The smiling John Key and purposeful Paula Bennett just don’t get it. They don’t get that we are not all endowed with their levels of ambition, confidence, connectedness and sanguinity.Their own welfare backgrounds only make this lack of insight more ironic. Punishing people who have no jobs only exacerbates their alienation. Along with work experience, many young people need some sort of life coach who will act as their guide to the complexities and discouragements of work life, who will be a mediator between their place of isolation and the wider society. We don’t seem to acknowledge as a society that people don’t instantly and magically become adults at 16, at 18 or at the age of majority. These are markers along the way, but have little to do with the individual maturity and coping abilities of many young adults.

I know it is all more complicated than this. Work schemes can turn into slave labour as they are in danger of doing in Britain. I haven’t even looked at all the other categories of unemployed. A humane society will not terminate benefits after a given period for people of any age. A humane society can try to make it easier for people to access work, but it should not blame the victims of social distress and economic downturn by making life even harder for them. This is basic justice.

As Christians we should be first to stand up for those who are oppressed and the first to champion laws and schemes which will ease the pathway to adulthood for all the young, however vulnerable they are. Sometimes those who are different have skills in caring, the arts, problem solving or practical trades, not to mention spiritual gifts that do not fit easily into our rigid society. In the end it benefits nobody to have an underclass and an oppressed class.

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