Budget 2015 – Normalising Poverty

Workers on welfare will get an extra $25 a week. This is the “take home message” of Budget 2015. After promising a “boring Budget”, and downplaying any expectations of help for children in poverty, Bill English has delivered a substantial increase to the money struggling families will receive.

Of course, there are strings attached. The money is a promise still – no-one is getting anything until April Fool’s Day next year. What’s more, in return for an extra $25 a week, solo parents will have to enlist in the workforce when their kids are just 3 years old. At the moment, you can stay at home and look after children until they are old enough to go to school. “Work-ready” testing will be tightened too – in other words, more pointless Winz courses, more hoops to jump through, more impossibly obscure bureaucracy to navigate just to survive from week to week.

But, hey, 25 bucks is still 25 bucks. It says a lot about the level of benefits – and wages – in New Zealand that we can all imagine what a relief it would be to have an extra $25 a week. For the rich of course this is spare change, 10c coins – but for us it is a roast, swimming pool entry fees, bus fares for a whole week, or yes – let the haters hate – a pack of smokes or a box of beer and a little bit of relief from the daily grind.

This $25 is at the heart of the Budget and it is a stroke of genius. It is exactly enough to silence critics and exactly too little to solve poverty. It is billed as the first increase beyond inflation since the 1970s, and if the spin doctors do their work well it will go down in history as an extraordinarily generous Budget – but it is actually normalising poverty.

English may be raising the level beyond inflation, but in 1991 welfare was cut by up to 21%. Inflation since then has been meagre and there is no suggestion of restoring welfare levels to pre-1991. More importantly, both National and Labour have tightened eligibility – and this is a noose around the neck of families. A theoretical level of support is worth nothing if you design the whole system to squeeze people out. That is what the welfare system has been designed to do for the last 30 years – to force people into ever more humiliating and degrading working conditions, and to squash the wages of working people.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when the union movement was strong, an increase equivalent to the pathetic $25 a week offered by Bill English would have been seen as a bitter insult and a provocation that would have brought the whole country to a standstill through strikes at schools, on buses, mines, factories, shops and on the roads and rail.

After thirty years of free market madness, the poverty that was in the past acceptable in the Third World but not in New Zealand has been normalised. It was Labour that introduced the disease in the 1980s, National that spread it like a plague in the 1990s, and Labour again under Helen Clark that normalised this hateful divide between rich and poor in the 2000s. John Key and Bill English are only following in their footsteps.