The Right’s Dependence on Welfare

A recent comment by Don Brash [about 7mins45secs into the video] gave me the clue as to why the right are so dependent on the ‘welfare’ argument. They are, to put it bluntly, dependent on ‘welfare’ as the explanation for all that, in their eyes, has gone wrong with the world. In particular, they are dependent on welfare for explaining poverty, crime and all the other social ills.

It’s an odd explanation and it’s wrong, but that seems to be what they believe.

Hone Harawira [about 7mins40secs into the video] challenged Don Brash’s claim that, under the Treaty, all New Zealanders have the same rights and obligations as British subjects. Harawira asked:

“So, if we all have the same rights how come Maori are doing so amazingly badly?”

Don Brash responded with the welfare argument:

“Well, because, as Apirana Ngata said in 1940, the welfare system is serving Maori very badly. And I agree with that.”

What Brash didn’t notice about this argument is something that those who use this same argument more generally to explain poverty, crime, etc. also don’t seem to notice. From its origins, the welfare system in New Zealand applied universally, irrespective of race. That means it cannot possibly be an explanation for differences between Maori and Pakeha on social statistics such as imprisonment rates, poverty levels and educational achievement.

That is, even if it is conceded, briefly, that ‘welfare’ is the scourge of proper social functioning the question remains as to why Maori became the one group most disadvantaged by the introduction of the ‘welfare system’?

Assuming that most people do not want to make a ‘genetic’ argument (or, it’s close relative, a ‘cultural pathology’ argument) the answer is pretty obvious: They were already disadvantaged, relative to Pakeha New Zealanders. I wonder why that was? Surely it wasn’t caused by the colonial past that Hone Harawira might emphasise? The problem, that is, pre-dated its supposed cause (‘welfare dependency’).

Now to the more general argument, that welfare is corrosive to the virtues of hard work, personal responsibility and family and community support. Once again, it’s useful to have a look at history.

Life without welfare was not the motivational El Dorado so often assumed. In 1883 Thomas O’Donnell – a ‘mule spinner’ in the textile industry – testified before a US Senate Committee. He described living on $1.50 per day with work for about 9 months only. He and his family supplemented the income by eating clams as did many others in Fall River:

I could not count them, they are so numerous. I suppose there are one thousand down there [in similar or worse conditions].

Perhaps the most interesting part of the testimony was the questioning about why Thomas did not take his family West to a farm and whether or not he had any ‘bad’ work habits:

Q. Well, I want to know why you do not go out West on a $2,000 farm, or take up a homestead and break it and work it up, and then have it for yourself and family?

A. I can’t see how I could get out West. I have got nothing to go with.

Q. It would not cost you over $1,500.

A. Well, I never saw over a $20 bill, and that is when I have been getting a month.s pay at once. If some one would give me $1,500 I will go.

Q. Is there any prospect that anybody will do that?

A. I don’t know of anybody that would.

Q. You say you think there are a thousand men or so with their families that live in that way in Fall River?

A. Yes, sir; and I know many of them. They are around there by the shore. You can see them every day; and I am sure of it because men tell me.

Q. Are you a good workman?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. Were you ever turned off because of misconduct or incapacity or unfitness for work?

A. No, sir.

Q. Or because you did bad work?

A. No, sir.

Q. Or because you made trouble among the help?

A. No, sir.

Q. Did you ever have any personal trouble with an employer?

A. No, sir.

Q. You have not anything now you say?

A. No, sir.

Q. How old are you?

A. About thirty.

Q. Is your health good?

A. Yes, sir.

Q. What would you work for if you could get work right along; if you could be sure to have it for five years, staying right where you are?

A. Well, if I was where my family could be with me, and I could have work every day I would take $1.50, and be glad to.

Q. One dollar and fifty cents a day, with three hundred days to the year, would make more than you make now in three or four years, would it not?

The questioning was clearly aimed at seeing whether or not there was some ‘moral’ or practical failing in the workman which meant that he was on such hard times. There wasn’t – but he could do nothing, on his own, to get out of his situation.

Prior to the welfare state, then, there was an assumption that being unemployed resulted from a moral failing of some sort. It was only the Great Depression, at least in the U.S., that changed public attitudes:

It was the Great Depression that changed public attitudes—the ubiquity of joblessness and the way it reached up into the middle class turned what had been seen as an individual moral failing into something else: a symptom of a sick economy.

The history of unemployment is relatively recent. Widespread unemployment was less known in agricultural times (pre-industrial) but, by the 1920s was kicking in across the developed world (especially Europe and North America).

There’s an interesting comparison of the ‘top ten best’ and ‘top ten worst’ states in the U.S. when it comes to the unemployment benefit. It’s interesting to see that, in general, states with the lowest benefits also tend towards having the highest unemployment rates – and vice versa. It’s not what you’d expect if generous welfare lured people into dependency.

As with the so-called welfare ’cause’ of Maori social statistics, it’s clear that there’s another factor affecting the numbers on forms of welfare. That factor is pretty obvious – it’s the economy. As the economy improves, unemployment declines (no surprise there). More interestingly, though, is that in a stagnant or declining economy there is a psychological effect.

Once again, the U.S. provides a good example of that effect in the official statistics:

The BLS does keep track of these nonemployed workers; it just doesn’t categorize them as unemployed. Instead, it describes them as “marginally attached to the labor force.” These are people who do not have a job, who would like one, and who have looked in the past year, though not the past four weeks. Many report that they had to stop searching for personal reasons—school or illness or family responsibilities—while others say they are not looking because, in essence, they have given up. That subset is called, aptly, “discouraged workers.” If the jobs number included all of these nonworkers, the November 2010 rate of 9.8 percent would climb to 11.3 percent.

Psychologists know this effect. It was originally called learned helplessness. From Seligman’s early experiments, it was shown that:

the strongest predictor of a depressive response was lack of control over the aversive stimulus.

When it comes to unemployment and other situations covered by welfare benefits, that is, the main factor that leads to ‘discouraged workers’ is not the allure of benefits but the lack of control over changing one’s own situation.

This is where the so-called ‘dependency’ comes from – lack of available jobs and opportunities. And this is recognised in the current recession in the U.S.:

What worries economists today is not just the size of the unemployment number but how this flow [out of but also back into work] has slowed and, for a large portion of the labor force, become stagnant. Today, 6.3 million Americans have been unemployed for more than 27 weeks. In December 2007, when the recession started, only 1.3 million were stuck in that category. These are workers who are not giving up, who are still answering ads and attending networking events and contacting employment agencies. For more than six months they’ve been unable to find a job, yet haven’t quit the fight and dropped into the ranks of the discouraged and marginally attached. They’ve remained determinedly, even defiantly, part of the “jobs number.

Put bluntly, against the odds, those on benefits not only have not become ‘dependent’ on welfare but have even managed not to become deeply demoralised and discouraged (they have not ‘learned helplessness’).

As their predecessors such as Thomas O’Donnell – who lived prior to any modern notion of welfare existed – showed, being stuck in poverty and awful circumstances is not a result of dependency. It is a result of the kind of economy we live in.

That simple fact, of course, cannot be acknowledged by the likes of Don Brash which is why he and his fellow travellers have become so dependent on ‘welfare’.


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4 Responses to The Right’s Dependence on Welfare

  1. “What Brash didn’t notice about this argument is something that those who use this same argument more generally to explain poverty, crime, etc. also don’t seem to notice. From its origins, the welfare system in New Zealand applied universally, irrespective of race. That means it cannot possibly be an explanation for differences between Maori and Pakeha on social statistics such as imprisonment rates, poverty levels and educational achievement.”

    Ah, very interesting point.

    Of course, anyone who attempts to use the ‘genetic’ argument’ immediatly traps him/herself into a self-labelling of “racism” and inability to venture further into any measure of a sophisticated, reasoned debate.

    And of course, prior to the arrival of pakeha – and about a century later – there simply was no welfare state in NZ.

    As with all right wing codswallop, a bit of reasoning can soon reduce it to nonsense.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Thanks for the comment Frank.

      Yep, if you apply the same ‘treatment’ to A and B and get different results the difference can’t be due to the same ‘treatment’. Pretty basic logic but it’s amazing what people ignore/don’t see when they’re in a rush to prove something that they want to be true.

      I agreed with your recent letter the the editor (The Press), too.

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