Should Maori Policy be Targeted or Universal? From Whanau Ora to a Universal Basic Income.

Looking back, five years ago on Boxing Day 2013 I wrote:

For poor and struggling Maori Christmases come and go with monotonous regularity marking neither change nor advancement in their lives but just the passing of another 365 days of struggle and the prospect of another 365 days exactly the same. For most of them the past is the present and the present is the future.

“They are the ones described in “Duino Elegies” by the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke as the “disinherited ones to whom neither the past nor the future belongs”.

Nothing much has changed.

In previous essays on Maori policy I have decried the narrow focus of Maori policy of the last few decades, specifically its focus on cultural and language revival, and on settlements and business development through neo-tribal organisation, at the expense of policy designed to lift all Maori out of the quagmire of poverty and inequality that still entraps large numbers of Maori at the bottom of the socio-economic heap.

I have advocated that the makers of Maori policy focus instead on the much wider national macro- and micro-economic policy settings that actually determine the place of our people in society, and that have worked against the narrow Maori policy settings of the last thirty-plus years. And in focusing on the political economy I have made a case for a moral underpinning of economic policy, and for mana tangata to be enshrined as the pou tokomanawa of all national economic policy. People first. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

I have been ambivalent about the Whanau Ora programme currently under review, having in my lived experience seen some 60 years of targeted Maori policy and programmes come and go without much long lasting and overall effect for all Maori. I commented that I expected Whanau Ora to go the way of all such programmes, to Programme Heaven.

From the website of Te Puni Kokiri we learn that:

“Whānau Ora is an approach that supports whānau and families to achieve their aspirations in life. It places whānau at the centre of decision making and supports them to build a more prosperous future.

“Whānau Ora is about increasing the wellbeing of individuals in the context of their whānau, it is whānau-centred. It differs from traditional social and health approaches that focus solely on the needs of individuals.

“Whānau ora recognises the strengths and abilities that exist within whānau and aims to support and develop opportunities that fulfill potential.

“The whānau-centred approach:

  • starts by asking whānau and families what they want to achieve for themselves, and then responding to those aspirations in order to realise whānau potential
  • provides flexible support for whānau and families to move beyond crisis into identifying and achieving medium and long-term goals for sustained change
  • focuses on relationships, self-determination and capability building for whānau to achieve positive long-term outcomes
  • uses a joined up approach that focuses on all factors relevant to whānau wellness, including economic, cultural, environmental factors, as well as social factors
  • recognise that each whānau has a different set of circumstances, and what works well for one whānau does not work well for other whānau
  • recognises that whānau and families have skills, knowledge and experiences that contribute to their own resilience, and can provide a platform for whānau and families to become more self-managing and independent.”

That is pretty much a cut-down version of classic community development principles aimed not at community but instead at just one of the building blocks of community; whanau. It misses the point of community development, in that the whole community needs to be developed. The institutions of community are equally important in the development process, as those institutions need themselves to adapt and develop their policies and practices in response to the self-identified aspirations and goals of whanau. And to the aspirations and goals of the whole of the community they serve. Those institutions are both non-governmental organisations, and the institutions of central and local government. And thus we are led inevitably and inexorably back to the policies within which those institutions function, primarily to economic policy.

Whanau Ora is not a policy. It is a programme. What Whanau Ora is doing is enabling some whanau to make some headway in the existing policy environment. It seems that it has also generated an economic dividend for some who don’t need it. It is not about designing and implementing policy settings that will change and improve the total living environment for all Maori.

For that is a challenge more universal in its vision, aims and objectives.

The challenge is to acknowledge, actively promote, and celebrate the mana of all New Zealanders; a social justice challenge. To create policy for the greater good of the greatest number, including the greatest number of Maori.

The challenge is to eradicate poverty, especially child poverty. The challenge is to significantly reduce the extremes of inequality, both income inequality and wealth inequality; to create a more egalitarian society for all, Maori and non-Maori.

And in so doing to promote equal access to quality housing, health and education. With subsidiary aims of reducing crime and imprisonment.

The first step is to eradicate poverty.

We were promised, over thirty years ago, that the now discredited neoliberal policy agenda of the radical Labour and National governments (1984-1999) would create wealth that would trickle down to all, and that the rising tide would lift all boats. Instead it lifted about 10% of the boats, some much higher than others, and at least 50% of waka Maori were left bottomed on the mudflats. It was a rising tide of inequality.

Is there a universal policy tide that will lift all boats?

Well, we already have one. We need look no further than New Zealand Superannuation which is paid to all New Zealanders over the age of 65 regardless of status, income and wealth. There is a slight anomaly that needs fixing, regarding marital status and gender equality. However, since the concept was introduced in 1938 it has largely solved the problem of poverty of the aged. That 80-year trial of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for old folk seems to have been quite successful.

We used to have a UBI for children – the Family Benefit that was paid from 1946 to 1985, paid to the mother, for all children up to the age of 16, or 18 for those still in education. That worked too. Then it was replaced with targeted benefits as part of the benefit slashing and beneficiary bashing of the neoliberal ideologues.

We now have a plethora of targeted benefits that don’t work. The increased incidence of poverty and homelessness, and all other indicators of an uncaring society bear testament to that assertion. It can be traced directly back to the benefit slashing and beneficiary bashing brought on by Minister of Finance Ruth Richardson’s 1991 “Mother of all Budgets” and by her “Ruthanasia” economic reforms. The targeted benefit system stigmatises beneficiaries instead of recognising their mana, and the inherent dignity of every person. It criminalises those who cheat the system in order to live. And it creates an administrative and compliance regime that is huge, unwieldy, costly, and that robs beneficiaries of their dignity. It has done nothing to eradicate poverty, and to reduce inequality. It has instead embedded poverty and inequality.

It panders to the bigotry of those who look down upon the less fortunate, and who blame them for their own misfortune. It functions alongside a tax system that taxes the income of all (except those who are already wealthy and able to evade taxation), that regressively taxes the consumption of all (GST), the burden falling most heavily upon those who can least afford it, and tax-exempts the wealth and rent seeking of the fortunate. Together the targeted benefit system and the targeted tax system prop up the structural inequality that maintains the privileged position of the fortunate few.

The proponents of the system of targeted benefits piously pretend that it builds a caring safety net. It is uncaring and robs people of their dignity. Takahi mana.

The reinstatement of a Universal Basic Income for children (previously the Family Benefit), and the introduction of a Universal Basic Income for all adults aged 16 to 64 would change all that. It would in one step raise all waka on a rising tide, begin to deal to poverty, begin to deal to inequality, and have significant downstream effect. It would remove the stigma of the beneficiary label and begin to restore the mana of present day beneficiaries.

And it would mostly disestablish the costly and much loathed administration and compliance apparatus.

How to pay for it? Apart from wiping out most of the costs of administration and compliance, that’s where the tax system comes into play. Perce Harpham has proposed a 33% flat tax regime that tax exempts those most in need, and progressively recoups the UBI payout from those who don’t need it. Additionally he and The Opportunities Party have both proposed forms of Asset Tax that aim to reduce wealth inequality and to help pay for a Universal Basic Income.

The targeted benefit and taxation regimes currently embed poverty, income inequality and wealth inequality into New Zealand society. A Universal Basic Income system and a new taxation regime can begin to reverse that situation.

Is it sustainable? It has to be. Faced with the uncertainty of paid employment in the digital age and gig economy, and in the developing age of automation and robotics, alongside the looming climate crisis, we have to move towards a political economy that aims to equitably share the national income and wealth, regardless of employment status. The alternative is widespread unrest, disruption and chaos. We will also need innovative new ideas about how to create a national income and national wealth that will sustain the whole nation. New ideas have always been the basis of progress. Old ideas that don’t work are for discarding. Ka pu te ruha.

Aiming far beyond the limiting confines of targeted Maori policy this is universal policy that will lift all waka. And begin to restore the mana of our people. Particularly those who can only gaze through the windows at the Boxing Day sales.

Boxing Day 2018.

See also “Economic Review of the Status of Beneficiaries in NZ” by Gail E. Duncan