Category Archives: Social Development

NGOs providing essential social services

For reasons previously unknown to me, successive governments have farmed out the provision of critical social services to non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This always struck me as shifting the responsibility away from the government, and I never understood why. Recently, the New Zealand Herald ran an article that mentioned why the government has utilised NGOs.

An effective, properly funded social services sector is crucial for the support of vulnerable children and their families. Most of the social services we need to achieve Government priorities are services best delivered by NGOs. There are many good reasons for this.

From the client perspective, NGO services are more trusted, accessible and private. From the community perspective NGOs are better networked into the community, both at agency and front line worker levels, and more likely to collaborate with others in the community.

From the Government perspective, using NGOs allows it to control the money it invests in social services while reducing the need for the employment of public servants who are not only more highly paid but get annual pay rises.

I agree with the client perspective. It’s much easier to trust the Sallies or Relationships Aotearoa than the Ministry of Social Development. There’s less of a sense of impending screwing over looming in the near future. While this is true, I think some rehabilitation of the government’s persona that it presents to people is important, rather than pushing all the work onto NGOs in order to cover up that reputation sinkhole.

I’m not sure what to think about the community perspective. I guess they’re better networked. I feel though that it’s because they’ve put in the work that government departments don’t feel like doing.Government departments could actually do the work and make the contacts and have the same advantages that the NGOs have there if they really wanted to.

From the government perspective. Well. Controlling the money it invests in social services? That sounds very much to me like code for ‘under-funding services and then blaming them for any failures due to lack of cash flow’. Any time the government talks about controlling costs it means that someone is going to lose out, and that the government is going to do all they can to make it seem like it was the most responsible thing it could have done.

The reason all this has come up is that a big NGO, Relationships Aotearoa, has just closed down due to funding deficits. The government blames RA, while RA say that the government didn’t come to the table with anything realistic. Whatever the reasoning, the upshot is that a bunch of counselling, including court-ordered counselling, has abruptly ended. That means that a bunch of ex-violent criminals have just lost their counsellors, people essential for their transition into functional community life.

It also reduces the need to pay public servants, who are guaranteed a good wage. Shall we say it plainer, and tell people that they just want to be able to pay people minimum wage for providing some of the most important social services to the most vulnerable groups in the country? Even if it’s not minimum wage, they still want to pay far less than people are worth to work far harder than the government deserves from them.

So why NGOs? People trust them more, yeah, but mostly we don’t have to give them much money, and we can shift the blame when thing so wrong. I love our government.

Benefit addicts and elitism

I think the focus around throwing benefit money at people to do nothing (or to jump through increasingly ridiculous hoops for WINZ) is the real issue. Instead of investing in educating and upskilling those not working we create a benefit addicted underclass with an entitlement mentality. Pay people a benefit if they enrol at university/Polytechnics and base their benefit rates on their grade average.

So says one hapless Stuff commenter, on an article about the issue of underemployment. I do wonder sometimes if people actually listen to what they are saying sometimes.

A benefit addicted underclass with an entitlement mentality. Well, people keep telling me there are dole bludgers living it up on the taxpayer dime, never intending to work and living well despite it. I have to ask, though, where are these people? If they were as common as it’s thought, then the government would be making an example out of them, whether punitively as a warning or positively when they’re finally off the dole. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe there’s a huge class of people out there that are different from my romantic notion of beneficiary life. But it’s not my experience, and it’s not backed up anywhere by any statistics I’ve seen. More than three quarters of unemployment beneficiaries are on the dole for less than a year – that doesn’t stink of a benefit addicted underclass. Maybe it’s the sickness, invalid’s, and sole parent benefits that people hang around on . . . um. Yes. That’s what those benefits are there for. People who have needs that are not just ‘out of work’. Chronically ill people may need a benefit their whole lives, and I will not begrudge them one cent. Sole parents are doing something very difficult, and they should be supported by everyone around them, not threatened with losing their only source of income.

A benefit addicted underclass who all rely on not-quite-enough to get by on each week. Really. It’s just such an attractive lifestyle, I can see why so many people would freely choose it. Back in the real world, people are on benefits for many reasons, and they’re far too complex to be dealt with in the schemes of the Stuff commenter mentality.

“Pay people a benefit if they enrol at university/Polytechnics and base their benefit rates on their grade average.” Oh honey. It’s like you had half a good thought and then your brain ran out of go-juice. We do pay people a benefit to go to Uni/Polytech – it’s called the Student Allowance. We do that to make education more available to people, to help them upskill. But there are people who will never do well in formal education, and they deserve to live just as much as a Rhodes Scholar (who, incidentally, is just on a very fancy kind of benefit). Tertiary qualifications are out of reach for some people for many reasons, medical, educational, and personal. Basing benefit rates on participation in tertiary education is very much elitist. Basing people’s worth on their enrolment at a higher learning facility is a few shades of ridiculous.

Basing benefits on grade averages has got to be one of the dumber ideas I’ve seen recently. There is just so much wrong with it. People who are disadvantaged tend to not perform as well academically as people who grew up with fewer impediments. People who are on a benefit because they are unwell may find it harder to attain higher grades. People who have a serious life event come up not only have to worry about their grades – they also have to worry about their budget getting cut over it. Honestly, when did this sound like it would be a good idea?

This sort of thinking assumes that every beneficiary has about the same advantages in life as the thinker, and that the beneficiaries are in a bad position because they are making bad choices. That’s just not the way the world works, and so applying solutions that involve putting pressure on people to make ‘good choices’ doesn’t work. They don’t have the right base to make ‘good choices’ from.

Cutting dental advances

I’ve written before about the tooth-shaped gap in our health care system. It’s a terrible oversight, and one that, it turns out, has just got a whole lot worse.

The way poorer people tend to cobble together dental care is a mixture of whatever they can spare and the $300 emergency dental grant available once a year. Unfortunately, often this is just not enough for even basic emergency dental care when things have become serious. One of the gap-fillers available to beneficiaries is to get an advance on the benefit from WINZ.

This is problematic in that it is an advance, so they will have to pay it back out of their already inadequate benefit. That’s an unreasonable thing to ask beneficiaries to do. The payment for dental assistance has not changed in at least seven years, and I suspect that it may well have been set at the same level for decades. Dental costs, like all other costs in this world, have been climbing steadily over those decades, and $300 won’t cover all that much any more. A 2013 Consumer survey revealed that it costs, on average, $140 for a single simple filling. By the time you qualify for a dental grant, you’re likely to need a lot more than just a filling. Just pull the thing out and save the trouble? Assuming that there is only one tooth involved, extraction can cost up to $300. Add on consultation and x-ray fees, and whoops, there we are over the $300 mark by quite a bit.

Now, things are getting worse for beneficiaries. They aren’t touching the dental grant (yet. Who knows with governments?), but the advance on benefits is now being cracked down on. In the 2010/11 financial year, WINZ loaned $9,398,451 to beneficiaries for emergency dental care. In the last year, they loaned $45,100. Look at those numbers for a moment.

There are still ten million-odd dollars of dental work that needs doing (probably a lot more, but at least that ten million). If WINZ are only loaning out $45k in a year, what is happening to all the other people that have been eligible for dental loans in the past? It has been suggested that people are making time-payment arrangements with their dentists, and I don’t doubt that some do. I suspect, however, that there are more people than ever going without the dental treatment they need.

I also learned that emergency hospital dental care commonly has a limit – they are likely to only extract one tooth. I guess it’s a case of choosing the one that hurts the most. That sounds so cynical, and I am sure that there are hospital dentists that bend the rules for people who are suffering whenever they can get away with it, but the reality will be just that brutal.

So our government has, yet again, pulled the rug out from under the poor. Why do they keep doing this? Saving money, blah blah surplus blah. I would hate to be a policy maker at the Ministries of Health and Social Development. To have to balance the wellbeing of their fellow man against budgets that just don’t match the need out there must be hard.

Independence from Work and Income support

One measure that WINZ uses as a proxy indicator for full time employment is ‘Independence from Work and Income Assistance’ (p.21). The issues with this are pretty big.

As WINZ acknowledges, there are many and varied reasons why people move off benefits. Reasons range from the WINZ-advocated commencement of full-time work, through to beginning a relationship that removes entitlement, becoming a student, moving to France, moving to prison, or even death. Oddly enough, not all of these are the successful outcomes that WINZ is trying to claim when they give the numbers shifted off a benefit each quarter to Parliament.

Claiming successes like that, when they freely admit in their own literature that the reasons for people coming off the benefit are varied type and in relative positivity, is disingenuous. Anecdotally, there are plenty of stories of people losing the benefit because they became homeless, or because their doctor and the WINZ doctor disagreed, or because they started a job that didn’t pay enough to provide for them but paid too much to keep the benefit. These are not WINZ successes.

How many of these stories are there out there? Well, we don’t know, because no-one keeps count and WINZ aren’t about to start, not when they can claim that every person off the benefit is a success story attributable to their hard work.

We can’t know how deep the problem here runs. I want there to be better records, and more accountability for the people dropping through the cracks in the system and suffering for it.