Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

21st March 1997

Copyright © 1997 Russell Brown

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APOLOGIES to those who've missed the Internet version, but for various reasons I haven't been posting it. I'll try and mend my ways - and to knock up a Tukugate omnibus over Easter (if only so my Serious Ford Office joke doesn't go to waste). Cheers. RB.

I'm pissed off that the Grey Lynn library is marked for closure because the Auckland City Council needs to shave its costs to pay for Britomart. I'm happy that our national cricket team is both successful and kinda cool with it. I'm appalled that Israel is going ahead and building houses in East Jerusalem.

I'm ambivalent about the America's Cup being beaten up by a lonely Maori activist. I'm shocked that the Wanganui City Council thinks it can lean on the Wanganui Polytech to fire Ken Mair because he's an annoying little man. I'm amused at New Zealand First's opinion poll ratings. I'm relieved that the Winebox hearings are in the home straight. But most of all I'm angry and suspicious about 'Beyond Dependency', the conference organised by Social Welfare and held at the Auckland Sheraton this week.

First, there was the name. "Beyond Dependency" doesn't leave a great deal of room for interpretation of the issues, does it? You're making assumptions about the problem before you've even imported your overseas experts. Why not 'Beyond Glue Ear', or 'Beyond Food Banks', or even 'Beyond Unemployment'?

'Beyond Dependency' was, I fear, just an exercise in softening people up, in canvassing the ideas of what's called "welfare reform" in America. The tone has been set, by New Zealand First's pet workfare policy, by the Business Roundtable, which imported a fake Catholic nun with an eyepatch to preach something called "tough love" - and by the director general of Social Welfare, Margaret Bazley.

Who the hell is this woman? All I ever seem to hear her do is make sweeping statements about benefit dependency - which she is almost invariably unable to back up with figures. She claimed several months ago that our primary schools were home to a generation of children who did not aspire to be fire fighters or airline pilots or doctors, but only to get on a benefit. On enquiry, it proved that she had simply made this up. Not a single educator would verify it.

Bazley went extra-heavy on the buzzwords this week - declaring that the DPB was a "lifestyle" for many women, although she could not even explain what that meant, let alone provide any proof that it was the case. Kim Hill, bless her heart, calmly, disdainfully made mincemeat of Bazley in a radio interview.

Hill was, I fear, more effective than Sue Bradford and her chums. With all due respect, Bradford has devalued the currency of her anger by dishing it up at the door of any conference which won't have her. I swear, she'd mount a flying wedge at the front doors of a plumbers' convention. Which is a shame, because this time, she had a point.

The point to me isn't so much what the hell was Jean Rogers, the enforcer of the US State of Wisconsin's welfare reform doing speaking at this conference, as what the hell was she doing in this country? What's going on in Wisconsin - and various other US states following its lead - has nothing to do with our traditions as a social democracy. In fact, it's pretty evil.

The state of Wisconsin is in the process of introducing a package called 'Wisconsin Works', or W2. It is the culmination of 10 years of so-called "reform" promoted by the state's egomaniacal governor, Tommy Thompson, who is expected to seek the Republican presidential nomination one day.

The development of W2 was funded by the Heritage Foundation, the same right-wing think-tank which put up the money for 'The Bell Curve', the vile work of pseudo-science which sought to claim that black people were genetically less intelligent than their white superiors.

I read some Heritage Foundation literature this week. They favour trillions of spending on weapons, but they think school lunches are the thin end of the wedge. They don't like abortion and they clearly don't like single women. Essentially, Heritage favours the vile, neo-Victorian beliefs espoused by many of the fake liberals on the right, such as Alan Gibbs. To wit: The poor are poor because they're too morally lacking to get married properly.

The same contemptuous attitude is visible in W2. Wisconsin's "reform" isn't anything at all to do with helping poor families or trying to give children a decent start. It's more about trying to screw down the labour market.

The state's unemployment is the lowest in the US, at 3.7 per cent, and a number of large corporations have publicly complained that they just can't get staff without paying more than the minimum wage. Well, hey guys, said Tommy Thompson, we'll just force welfare recipients to do the jobs. You can get women with dependent children to do anything if you threaten to starve them.

Some people have estimated that three-quarters of the jobs generated by W2 will pay less than the minimum wage. Of course, the huge sums of money the state spends on compulsory childcare amount to nothing much more than a big, juicy subsidy for those penny-pinching corporations, but, hey, that's why they vote for Tommy Thompson.

Indeed, wage subsidies feature very prominently in Wisconsin Works, and the other schemes Margaret Bazley so admires. The basis of W2 and the other state schemes is "block grants", a kind of bulk funding of federal health and welfare enititlements which sees the state government freed of any obligation to actually provide health care or food. In Winsonsin, for example, money which was set aside for food stamps can now be passed directly to employers as "wage supplementation".

The breaktaking anti-woman undercurrent of these ideas kicks in nastily here. An ordinary poor worker, probably male, on or below the minimum wage, still has access to food stamps to feed his kids. The W2 "assisted" worker with the same employer, probably a woman with children, has her food stamps converted to cash and handed to the employer.

It gets worse. Those whose children currently receive "nutrition benefits" such as food stamps or school lunches, now have that food defined by the state as income, on the basis of which other benefits can be denied.

Perhaps most disturbingly, the state of Wisconsin uses food as a bargaining chip against mothers. Wisconsin has officially lowered the cut-off age of a dependent child to 12 weeks. Mothers who do not leave their babies at the age of 12 weeks - when they should still be breastfeeding - and go to work, no longer receive food stamps. Pause for a moment and shudder at how lowly the difficult, unpaid and vital job of motherhood is rated by these fools. The clear implication is that mothers do nothing of value.

Similarly vile things have been done with health care. By taking the block grant, Wisconsin is able to erase any committment to providing health care. A single mother who takes up a work training scheme will find her participation in training to be counted by the state as income, which may be used to deny her health care. And, of course, school lunches count too. Health care can also be denied to families with more than $2500 in assets. If W2 workers take up jobs with built-in health insurance, they automatically lose the right to health care - whether or not they can actually afford to pay the private insurance premiums.

Moreover, all Wisconsin welfare receipients are required to pay insurance premiums to the state in order to get health care - and these premiums rise sharply with the receipt of any extra income. Winsconsin also denies welfare childfren access to a range of preventative health services mandated by the federal government.

Winsonsin will save money here - and its waiver from the federal government builds in the ability to divert Medicaid funding to any purpose it desires. Building a new stadium for the Milwaukee Brewers, for example. Indeed, Wisconsin needs to shave health funding to pay for the huge extra costs of forcing mothers into work.

Jean Rogers says people have protested right through 10 years of reform in her state. Look, she says, how many families used to be on welfare and aren't now. And do you know which group now has the highest infant mortality rate in the entire USA? Not the urban jungle dwellers of New York or Los Angeles - but the ethnic poor in Wisconsin. Specifically, the Hmong, a mountain people of South East Asia who were allowed to escape the wreckage of Vietnam because they'd provided cannon fodder for the Americans. Imported as refugees by well-meaning church groups, these people can't even get English lessons, yet they're expected to get jobs. The nastiest, most poorly-paid jobs, of course. So let's re-emphasise that point. The scheme which neither Margaret Bazley or Social Welfare Minister Roger Sowry could bring themselves to criticise presides over the highest infant mortality rate in America.

There have been attempts to defend W2 by noting that the increased level of childcare subsidy is a step forward, but that's a bit like saying we could all learn something from Hitler's observance of a vegetarian diet.

Remember, we're not talking here about long-haired dole bludgers with lawnmowing jobs on the side. It's families, most of them headed by single mothers. So sure, we should encourage people to enter the workforce or training, we should help them be productive and involved whether in jobs or not. But we should have no truck with so-called "reform" ideas which have a hell of a lot more to do with woman-hate than they do with getting kids a fair start in life.

It's no suprise, of course, that the arrival in government of a boys' party such as New Zealand First should provide the trigger for these ideas. But it is disgusting to hear talk of crisis when Consumer Affairs Minister Robyn McDonald spends the annual income of four beneficiaries on a wholly unecessary first-class trip to France. And when the government ignores Treasury reports in order to press on with the building of a plush, new $100m building for MPs, because Bowen House isn't sexy enough any more. Yet when Treasury says beneficiaries are the problem, it's a crisis. The crisis, I would suggest, is not in the welfare state, but in the debate.

Expect to hear more of it


    ==  ==      Russell Brown
  [ @ / @  ]                      
     /        ________________________________________
    (_)         "The views expressed on this programme
    ____)       are bloody good ones." Fred Dagg, 197?

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