Policy Wonks, Wonky Policies: the Welfare Working Group


So there was a fair bit of reportage last week around the fact that Minister for Social Development Paula Bennett had appointed a sociologist named Peter Saunders to her Welfare Working Group, while citing the work of a completely different Peter Saunders in the House. Not different in the ‘Clark Gable moustache and eyepatch’ sense; more ‘diametrically opposed philosophies which should be readily apparent to anyone reading their work’. Lyndon Hood has a much, much funnier summary of the whole ordeal here, but what most media outlets seem to have overlooked is the sheer craziness that the Actual Peter Saunders is touting.

Again, Gordon Campbell has a much better summary than I can really offer, but the gist of it is that the Peter Saunders that Bennett intentionally appointed to the Welfare Working Group explicitly believes that poor people (like beneficiaries) are generally less intelligent than wealthier people and are therefore less deserving of training and education. No, really.

“…we do not need to do IQ tests to find evidence supporting the link between social class and intelligence.

“The close approximation between what would happen under open competition and what does happen in Britain indicates that ability probably does coincide to a large extent with class positions.

“This lends strong support to Mr Murray’s claim of a link between low average intelligence and low class position.”

And more recently:

“…large numbers of people who used to perform useful but unchallenging tasks in the economy now have nothing to do, which is one reason why welfare numbers have increased so much.

“Assuming they don’t want to leave people to waste their lives on welfare, one solution politicians find attractive is training displaced people to do more complex and rewarding jobs. The trouble is, OECD evidence shows this rarely works.

“Women returning to work after having children may benefit from government retraining schemes, but the long-term unemployed and jobless school-leavers rarely do.

“Pushing them through government training courses makes politicians feel good, but it is not going to turn them into skilled IT workers.”

It’s worth noting at this point that six weeks since Bennett announced the Future Focus package, with plenty of tough-but-fair talk about the need to get people off the dole and back into the workplace – and education, she assured us, was the key. Yet there’s been no sign of any financial assistance or incentive programmes to achieve this. Things like, say, the Training Incentive Allowance.

When I brought this up with John Key on Monday he said I’d have to discuss it directly with Bennett, and fair enough. But I’m more concerned by his response to Peter Saunders’ comments:

“In the end it’s a broad group aimed at looking at whether we can deliver better outcomes and greater efficiency in the welfare system. I can’t comment about a specific comment he’s made; it could be taken out of context.”

It’s one thing to have a broad range of views, but “poor people are too dumb to help”? Really? The National brand is supposed to be built on moderate pragmatism; not ideological handwaving. Perhaps Key figures there’s less political fallout in letting sleeping dogs lie, but this is really like running electoral reform past someone who believes in the divine right of kings.

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