Cover photo of Social Policy Journal


This special issue of the Social Policy Journal is focused on the Beyond Dependency Conference, hosted by the New Zealand Department of Social Welfare in March 1997. It features contribution from a range of international authors. The central theme is benefit dependence and ways of exiting from it. The Conference theme reflects the rapid growth in almost all developed countries in the number of working-age adults and their dependent children who have come to rely on publicly funded income transfers as their main means of support. In this issue an international panel of contributors present a wide spectrum of views on the appropriate public policy response to this situation. In doing so a diverse set of programmes and policies are explored.

Underlying this diversity are certain common background elements. The key characteristics of the ongoing social security and welfare benefit systems of most developed countries were created in a different era. At that time it was possible to believe that long-term benefit dependence would involve only a tiny minority of the working-age population, with most other income support claimants being in the system for comparatively short periods between jobs, and with almost all children being supported by a working parent or parents. In conjunction with the apparently endless economic expansion and buoyant job market in the third quarter of the 20th century the welfare benefit system could be made more generous, with little being asked of recipients.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, the realities have changed. Slower economic expansion has been accompanied by less buoyant labour markets and, in particular, by the loss of well-paid full-time unskilled and semi-skilled manual jobs. The new labour market has a more diverse mix of employment opportunities, including much part-time and casual work, but also more demanding criteria for full-time job seekers. Social and family structures have changed also, leading to a rapid expansion in the numbers of lone parents. At the same time government budgets have been under severe pressure – with ageing populations indicating more problems to come – while concern about the long-term consequences of benefit dependence has grown in the community.

While diverse, the contributions to the Journal pick up a number of key public policy responses.

The importance of work as a mechanism for exit from poverty and benefit dependence in the U.S.A. is stressed by Lawrence Mead. The "work first" preference in Norway is also put forward by Bjornskau, Dahl, and Grogaard, and the general issue explored by Alex McKenzie. Jean Rogers sets out the "Workfare" agenda in Wisconsin, while at the other end of the spectrum Maureen Baker laments the shortage of well-paid jobs and identifies wide divergences in social values influencing the structures of contemporary benefit systems set against a common tide of economic rationalism. David Preston also stresses the diversity of systems within which certain common problems are being addressed, and defines the main features of an emerging benefit reform philosophy. Susan St John argues that it is time to move the debate from the ideological level to the empirical, and that there is room for agreement with respect to specifying objectives and measuring and evaluating success.

Making work pay by providing income supplements to low-income workers is the theme of the contribution by Alan Marsh. His evaluation of the U.K. Family Credit programme examines how it has opened up new options for low-income families, notably sole parents. Marsh also stresses the positive role of effective enforcement of Child Support payments by absent parents, a theme also picked up by the U.S. contributors. He and several other writers comment on initiatives to allow beneficiaries to earn more from part-time work.

The role of tightening eligibility conditions and the pitfalls associated with this are explored by Joke de Vroom and Michel Rovers in their analysis of the Netherlands disability regulations and a system that they believe is at times running out of control. The theme of the de Vroom and Rovers paper is also picked up by Bjørnskau, Dahl and Grøgaard. "The problem is quite simply that a generous welfare state can survive only as long as the number of social security beneficiaries is limited."

Cedric Wyatt comments on the negative impact of traditional welfare programmes on the indigenous people of Australia, and promotes the possibilities for long-term economic independence and self-management springing from a restoration of the indigenous resource base.

Running through a number of the contributions is a recognition of the way social security and welfare authorities have begun to move from a passive role of simply paying out correct benefit entitlements towards more active "case management" aimed at assisting people away from long-term benefit dependence. However, the spectrum is wide, ranging from the more traditional Swedish active labour market programmes and the facilitative client focussed services of New Zealand to the strict "new paternalism" in North America.

This issue also contains a special section featuring three contributions by practitioners in the field who describe specific local initiatives in which they are involved. Jan Johansson indicates how in Sweden a public authority has built up partnerships with community groups and private companies, developing possibilities for non-traditional – but partly subsidised – employment options for the "hard to place". John Murphy describes an innovative community-based initiative in Australia, while Foreman, Hawton and Ward describe a somewhat different programme in the U.K.

The diversity of contributions on how to reduce avoidable benefit dependence reflects the wide variety of systems and differences in social values, and the range of initiatives being taken. We are confident that this issue of the Social Policy Journal, together with the conference that inspired it, will play an important role in furthering the ongoing dependency debate.

Elizabeth Rowe
General Manager

Cover photo of Social Policy Journal


Social Policy Journal of New Zealand: Issue 08

Print this page.