Hard News by Russell Brown

327

Is that it?

On the face of it, a promise from the government to spend $20 million to provide " guidance and support" for vulnerable young beneficiaries -- about 1600 16 and 17 year-olds drawing the Independent Youth Benefit and 2400 parents under 18 -- should be a good thing at any time.

Whether it is productive to, compulsorily, deprive most of those young people of choice and responsibility by making them subject to what amounts to a bureaucratically-driven food-stamp system is less clear. But that is part of the flagship policy announced yesterday in a conference speech by the leader of the National Party, John Key:

While there is still a lot of detail for officials and ministers to work through, we envisage that: 
some essential costs, like rent and power, will be paid directly on the young person’s behalf, 
money for basic living costs like food and groceries will be loaded onto a payment card that can only be used to buy certain types of goods and cannot be used to buy things like alcohol or cigarettes 
and that a certain, limited amount will be available for the young person to spend at their own discretion.

It seems salient to note that anyone selling alcohol and cigarettes to 16 and 17 year-olds is already breaking the law -- and relevant to ask whether this is a widespread and demonstrable problem, or merely a perception held by the voters National wishes to target.

One thing can be said for certain: there is no blowout in numbers on the Independent Youth Benefit. As Danyl demonstrates, the number of IYB recipients has, in fact, been declining, even as unemployment benefit numbers rise. This may simply be because a demographic bubble, that of the children born in the early 90s "baby blip", is moving out of that age range.

The parents in that group will be expected to be in education or training by the time their child is one year old, and a National government would fund childcare to make that possible. There is no detail as yet as to how many hours of training the government would expect to be undertaken, or whether the childcare funding would cover it all, but the result would be clear enough: the choice to continue parenting children full-time after they're able to walk on their own would become the preserve of the employed. Compulsorily.

Also to be targeted: between 8500 and 13,500 of those aged 16 and 17 who are not in work, training or education: the so-called "disengaged youth". They will be identified (by amending privacy law so schools must notify the government if students aged 16 and 17 leave during the school year) and linked with private contractors who will receive cash bonuses if they are able to place their wards in work or training.

The danger that the contractors will focus on the easiest to convert, at the expense of those less likely to deliver a conversion bonus, seems evident. It would be useful to see some sort of sort of study comparing a revenue-driven model of care with conventional services, rather than simply offering the policy as an article of faith, but I'm not holding my breath for that.

And, indeed, this is why it's hard to have confidence in the efficacy of such a policy. National promised "boot camp" solutions for disengaged youth going into the 2008 election, even though the evidence suggested that such schemes were relatively ineffective, or even counterproductive, and in government continues to defend the schemes even though research is bearing out the claims of the doubters.

Like national standards -- rushed through without committee scrutiny, never subject to trial and now the centre of a pointless and wasteful war with more than 400 school boards -- boot camps remain a slogan more than a solution. And, tellingly, a slogan not even considered worth airing in yesterday's speech.

Youth unemployment has soared in the past three years: more than a quarter of people under 25 are unemployed. By any rational assessment, this is because we have been subject to a global recession -- and a job market in which employers have sought to retain rather than recruit -- than because of long-term dependence. Yet, often without the bother of actually changing the rules, even the supposed safe harbour of the invalid's benefit has become much more fraught. The truly vulnerable have a much harder time with the welfare system than they used to.

Ironically, the 2008 National policy that did promise to make it easier for the unemployed to move into work -- an easing of abatement rates on employment income -- was blithely broken. And the Community Max job subsidy scheme -- which seemed to actually be working -- was defunded after its first year, in an act of policy vandalism.

This year's model seems essentially a remix of the traditional election-year rhetoric -- a smilier version of Don Brash's rather unpleasant offering in 2005. A lack of jobs appears to be a far more significant influence on spiking youth unemployment than a sudden unwillingness to work amongst young New Zealanders. And it's hard to see what in this policy really addresses that.

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