There's been a bit of discussion in the press about PACE (Pathways to Arts and Cultural Employment) - Work and Income's programme for unemployment people seeking work in artistic or cultural fields - and the current government's lack of love for it.
When PACE was introduced by Labour in 2001, for the first time people receiving the unemployment benefit who were seeking work in arts or cultural areas, could honestly look for such work and to not be forced into any old job.
But it seems that since National came to power, while PACE hasn't been scrapped, it hasn't been given much support either. The Dominion Post reports that Social Development Minister Paula Bennett now considers it "not a programme or scheme", but rather "tag in the system that indicates the job preferences of a client".
Well, in 2003 I was tagged by the system.
I'd been unemployed for a while and had gone on the dole in 2002. I was initially on the bog-standard dole, and had been required to attend a short course called WorkTrack, designed to teach job-seeking skills to the recently unemployed. It was awful.
All the other people on the course had little education and they were all looking for either labouring or entry-level retail work, and the course seemed geared towards that sort of situation. Two seperate tutors gave the group a little join-the-dots puzzle that was supposed to teach us how to "think outside the box". Ugh.
I came to the end of it feeling really dejected. Rather than expanding my horizons, it had shrunk them. The world of employment had narrowed to that of working at a call centre, with my previous employment in the creative web turning into a pipe dream.
Then early in 2003, a friend told me about the PACE programme. I enquired and was happily switched over to PACE.
Not only that, I enrolled on a year-long course called New Space. It was designed for people who were involved in the arts but currently unemployed. It wasn't so much about CV-writing and tracking down job opportunities (though that was relevantly covered), but more about figuring out what it is about you that was keeping you unemployed. Because, you know, people in the arts, they have issues.
Just as an example - what if you're the kind of person who thinks its unethical to make money from the arts? How do you make a living when you have money issues like that? Yeah, you need to get your shit sorted out.
New Space was hard work, really challenging but totally brilliant. It consisted of day-long classes three days a week for four weeks, then two days a week for six weeks, then monthly catch-ups for the rest of the year. Everyone who did New Space were smart, creative people who wanted to continue working in their chosen field. No one there was trying to scam Work & Income by drizzling some paint on a canvas and saying "Oh, yeah, I'm an artist?"
And New Space really helped me sort through a lot of the bullshit in my life, and I know it also helped the other people on the course. As the course ended, I went straight into employment at TVNZ. I haven't kept in touch with all of the course attendees, but the ones I do know about are working and doing what they love. And that's good.
There's so much work available in the arts and cultural field, but it can be a bit of a rough ride getting established. PACE gives people time and space to get the kind of work they want and are suited to.
For me, PACE never felt like "a tag in the system". It felt more like a smart and active way of helping certain types of unemployed people get work. So it seems strange for the government to not want to support PACE. From what I can tell, it works. People on PACE want to be employed in their area of expertise. They don't want to struggle on a benefit.