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New Zealand's welfare system fails to recognise the dignity of our people - how can we fix it?

“Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”  Nelson Mandela

New Zealanders believe in justice.  We care about protecting our right to a dignified and decent life.  An effective welfare system is only serving its purpose then, when it is taking care of the people at the heart of it. We know we’re not there yet. 

In 2019, the Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG) released a report formally defining the sentiment long felt by many – that our welfare system diminishes the dignity of those who come into contact with it.  The Welfare Expert Advisory Group has pointed to key factors of the welfare system that strip people of their dignity.  But it has also given us the opportunity to redefine the “problem”.  We can reclaim the narrative, the values, and the vision. 

The problem is dignity, not dependency

Through direct engagement with welfare recipients, the Welfare Expert Advisory Group was able to identify multiple ways people experience a loss of dignity. On a high level, we can explain this loss through the relationship between “welfare dependency” and dignity.

In New Zealand, like many other neoliberal countries, paid employment is valued above all other forms of activity, and those who are employed are granted a higher level of dignity than those who are not. Thanks to a politically-curated neoliberal narrative, welfare dependency is deliberately linked to the idea of individual failure so that to be “dependent” (instead of self-sufficient) is shameful, demeaning and infantilising.

The loss of dignity in our welfare system can be specifically explained through three key features:

  • A lack of adequate income – benefit recipients simply do not receive enough income to meet basic needs, let alone to participate meaningfully in their communities.
  • An overly complex system – structural features such as case manager workloads, eligibility criteria and definitions of key terms (such as ‘relationship’) cause undue stress and isolation.
  • The imposition of strict obligations and punitive sanctions – the balance between the requirements welfare recipients need to meet, and the consequences if they fail, is heavily skewed and unfair.

These features of the welfare system, as well as attitudes towards welfare dependency, work together to create an environment that greatly diminishes the dignity of those who receive welfare. With the release of the WEAG report, this is now a formally identified problem – how to solve it, however, is not so clearly defined.  

What is clear is that we need a different approach.  To design a welfare system that enhances human dignity, we could start by adopting three fundamental models: a tikanga Māori value-based framework; the Universal Caregiver Model; and the implementation of policies rooted in social democratic principles, such as Universal Basic Income.

Tikānga Māori

The Welfare Expert Advisory Group report advocated for a tikānga Māori framework, which would have six key kaupapa Māori values underpin the welfare system to ensure all people live a dignified life. This collection of values is called ‘Kia Piki Ake Te Mana Tangata’ and includes: manaakitanga (caring with dignity and respect), ōhanga (economics), whanaungatanga (treasuring kinship ties and relationships), kotahitanga (unity), takatūtanga (preparedness), and kaitiakitanga (guardianship). These values, alongside the idea of tino rangatiratanga (self-determination), have already been imbedded in policies such as Whānau Ora and the Ngāi Tūhoe Service Management Plan, both of which have been evaluated fairly positively. Similarly, by entrenching tikānga Māori values within our welfare system we could help reshape the agencies and their practices that currently detract from our people’s sense of dignity.

Valuing care

We also need to reframe the different levels of dignity associated with paid work and unpaid ‘care work’, especially from the viewpoint that care work is typically feminised. The idea of a ‘Universal Caregiver’ is one possible way to address the disparity between the dignity afforded to those who are employed, and those who are not. The Universal Caregiver Model advocates for all people, regardless of gender, to engage in both paid work and care work – granting them the same value and deconstructing the gendered breadwinner/caregiver binary.

Countries like Sweden and the Netherlands have incorporated the Universal Caregiver Model into their parental leave policies, to encourage parents of all genders to take career breaks to care for their children. Childcare is a useful starting point, but in our case, the New Zealand welfare system should consider how the Universal Caregiver framework could work for those who care for people with disabilities or medical conditions – a group who currently receive little recognition of dignity and worth.

Income equality

Finally, the principles of Universal Basic Income (UBI) could help to enhance dignity. The WEAG report acknowledged that to live a dignified life, people must be able to participate and engage meaningfully in their own communities. At present, the level of income received by most welfare recipients is not even enough to cover basic needs. Because a UBI would be expensive and would not necessarily be enough to cover basic needs, as a first step we could move towards the UBI principles by individualising the welfare system, and reducing the conditionality of benefits while making them much more generous.

Conclusion

As it is, the welfare system’s dignity deficiency is not sustainable for our people - for their well-being, their sense of worth and for their right to a dignified life.  But we can do better. By anchoring the welfare system in the principles of social democracy and the core values of tikanga Māori, we can restore dignity to the welfare system, and the people whose rights we all believe in protecting.

About the author

Saralee Gore has recently completed a Masters of Public Policy at the University of Auckland. This article is informed by her dissertation Where is the Dignity in Dependency? An exploration of how New Zealand's welfare policies could be reframed to promote dignity for all