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Disabled should benefit but others must work

Welfare is a growing topic of conversation in New Zealand politics.

The Government is establishing a Welfare Working Group to look into the system.

Welfare has become a standard part of the political landscape, as it appropriately attempts to see the welfare of the most vulnerable in our communities, those who are unable to generate an income because of illness, disability or unemployment.

It is good to see welfare being carefully considered.

One of the major criticisms levelled at welfare is that it can, with the best of intentions, dissuade people from stepping back into the workforce.

Work has been shown to be beneficial for people for more reasons than just lining the wallet. For example, it provides people with an opportunity to contribute to the broader society and provides a context for social interaction.

We need to balance our responsibility to provide for those who are not drawing an income and help those who can work from a life of joblessness and benefit cheques.

British Reforms

The UK has walked the road of welfare reform in recent years, with mixed results.

Its lessons are worth examining as we ask similar questions in New Zealand.

At the recent “Reviewing Welfare and Social Sector Policy and Reform” conference, Maxim Institute Chief Executive Greg Fleming presented a paper looking at the UK experience and New Zealand’s situation.

He distilled specific issues that New Zealand needs to consider as we undergo a review of welfare.

These issues include recognising and remedying structural barriers to employment; recognising the importance of case managers having responsibility and flexibility in assisting beneficiaries; finding ways to avoid financial disincentives for work; and, continuing to value work as a good thing.

The Value of Work

The Position Statement of the Australasian Faculty of Occupational Environmental Medicine states that work is important not just for its monetary value, but also for the myriad physical and mental health benefits that it accrues.

Work facilitates social inclusion, productive behaviour and rational and responsible habits. In embarking on reform to Invalid’s and Sickness Benefits, we should not forget the health and well-being benefits of work.

The design of assessment incapacity is often difficult to assess, especially for mental illness and physical stress-related conditions.

The UK’s Work Capability Assessment has been faulted for its bias toward physical dysfunction and its tendency to miss mental health problems, judging too many people with real incapacities to be fit for work.

Assessments drawn up and carried out by professionals who are trained in not only physical and mental health but also in vocational rehabilitation are more likely to correctly measure a person’s capability and potential for taking on work.

Assessments should not be designed to merely limit the numbers of people on Invalid’s Benefits. They should focus on accurately assessing claimants’ ability to work.

New Zealand provides income protection for working-age people unable to work due to incapacity in three forms. They are 1. Invalid’s Benefit is for people with a long-term and severe incapacity. It is income-tested and non-contributory, and it extends for as long as the incapacity remains 2. The Sickness Benefit, for people with a short-term incapacity, is also income-tested and non-contributory, extending for the duration of that incapacity 3. The Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) provides for those with an accident-related incapacity. It is an employment-related social insurance, providing weekly compensation based on past earnings, but not tied to individual contributions. ACC is payable as long as the injury-related incapacity remains.

Sickness Benefit Statistics:

Sickness Benefits cost the Government $613 million in fiscal year 2009

As at March 2010, there were 55,796 people on Sickness Benefit (an increase of 74% from 2000)

41% Sickness beneficiaries have psychological or psychiatric conditions

15% of beneficiaries suffer from musculo-skeletal disorders

1.6% have received the benefit for ten years or more

12.8% have received the benefit from four to 10 years

48.2% have received the benefit for less than one year

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