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National leader Simon Bridges and deputy Paula Bennett. Photo/Getty

Voters deserve more than National’s see-through social welfare strategy

National lazily offers up stereotyped social welfare proposals.

National caused a stir last week following the announcement and release of their Social Services Discussion Document. In it, they signalled their intention to bring back – if elected next year – their Social Investment strategy, which was a hallmark of the Key-English government. 

The strategy itself is not all bad. The idea of using research and data to target government resources in order to create maximum impact for the most vulnerable has a lot of merit. After all, the Government cannot fund everything so it makes sense that vulnerable and at-risk people, who need the most support, get what they need to thrive.

As National point out in their Discussion Document, it’s about finding a balance between what government-funded support needs to be universal and what needs to be targeted. But for the Social Investment strategy to be successful in effecting genuine change, it would require the people driving it to be asking the right questions.

Unfortunately, National is not. 

In the Document, one of the key questions the party asks is why, during the last two years under a Labour-led Government, has the number of people on social welfare risen by 22,000?

Their answer: Labour has gone soft on beneficiaries. And their solution? Get tough.

Despite Social Development Acting Minister Poto Williams pointing out there are actually fewer people accessing benefits now than under the previous National-led government and that we have the lowest unemployment rate in over a decade, National wants to bring in more sanctions, obligations, and accountability – creating consequences for those who do not measure up to the standard they set.

While they are correct to say families are better off when they aren't dependent on the welfare system, and their objective of supporting people into finding meaningful employment is admirable, the assumptions they bring into this discussion reveal how little this current National party understands about the real challenges facing our communities.

For example, they propose a time limit for young people accessing the benefit. In an interview with Newshub, National leader Simon Bridges proposed this limit could be anywhere from three to six months. National also calls for "consequences" (aka eviction) for people in state houses who are suffering from drug addiction or involved in violence, and it wants to get tough on gangs by cutting benefits if gang members can't prove they gained assets and income legally.

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These proposals, among others, fail to address the real issues that lie beneath the increase of 22,000 people. Sure, they make great headlines for those in their voter base who bemoan the "dole bludgers" who are sucking up money from "hard-working tax-payers". Yet, they lack any real substance, and if applied, will only make New Zealand a more hostile and challenging place for whanau who already live on the margins.

New Zealanders are not on the benefit because they are after a cruisy ride. And this narrative that paints people accessing social welfare as dole bludgers, and misfits, needs to end. It is an easy vote catcher, but it is uneducated and untrue.

In all my years supporting people who have needed the benefit to survive, I have never met one person who truly wanted to be on it. Despite popular opinion, dealing with WINZ is not a joy ride. And a significant portion of those 22,000 people will be doing life hard; living payment to payment, having to constantly worry about how they are going to provide for their families, all while having to deal with an invasive and dehumanising welfare system which is constantly looking over their shoulders.

National is 100% right that we should be helping people to get away from the trap of welfare dependency and most people would agree that depending on the welfare system for years is not an ideal way for anyone to live.

But getting tougher on beneficiaries and increasing sanctions is not going to solve anything. If we want to reduce the numbers of people on the benefit, then we need to ask the question: Why are people accessing it in the first place?

If National had asked that question, starting with the assumption that people genuinely want to be self-sufficient and independent of the welfare system, then they would have come up with a much sturdier and more practical solution.

Homelessness, addiction and poverty are only some of the factors which put people in the position of needing government support. Childhood trauma and abuse can also contribute, not to mention all those facing a serious challenge with their physical and mental health. With or without sanctions, people will still be facing these challenges. They won't just magically go away if we start making the benefit harder to access and maintain.

So, instead of making the welfare system more suspicious of beneficiaries, why not create a system built on generosity and compassion? One which doesn't just settle for giving people enough to survive but commits to providing people with the resources they need to thrive.

People are accessing welfare for a reason, so why not start there? Why not get to the bottom of what their need is, and then actually help them by providing each individual with real support, tailored to their needs.

Whether that be a Youth Worker, Community Worker, mental health support, or unlimited counselling, why don’t we put our energy into providing real solutions, rather than providing the bare minimum, and punishing those who don’t “sort themselves out” fast enough?

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National has taken a stance that will only feed and encourage the current culture of beneficiary bashing which exists in this nation. One which if they continue to hold to, will only make matters worse for those they say they wish to help.

We deserve more than sound bite solutions from our politicians – they can, and should, do better than this. 

We need our elected leaders to engage with our communities, to educate themselves of the realities of what our whanau are dealing with. We need politicians willing to actually pay attention to what is happening to people in this nation, and then be courageous enough to respond.

There will always be votes to be won for those willing to sow seeds of division and disharmony, and those willing to propagate the narrative of the "lazy and undeserving poor". 

However, true leaders will look past the next election cycle, focusing not on far-off dreams of power but on creating much-needed solutions to alleviate the suffering of our people.

If National's MPs are serious about making a real social impact for those who need it most, then they will need to rethink their current approach. Until they do, they will sadly continue to be part of the problem, rather than providing the solution they have so enthusiastically promised.

Aaron Hendry blogs at When Lambs Are Silent and is Team Leader at Lifewise Youth Housing. 

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