As the welfare debate again rises from the grave over the next few weeks, it'll pay to remember that life is messy and keep asking 'where are the jobs?'.
I suspect we can start this post by agreeing that having 325,000 people on benefits is not a great thing and we'd like to see more people in work. And I suspect the agreement ends about there, such is the red rag welfare tends to become in political debates. It divides and infuriates people faster than
Where you stand on welfare reforms largely comes down to whether your gut reaction to beneficiaries is to blame them as individuals, or to blame other factors at play, such as economic conditions, economic policies, family breakdown and the like. Everyone has a fistful of anecdotes to back up their position because, well, there's an element of truth on either side.
The tough task of government is to find out what's most often true for most of the people and figure out what can be done to get more people into work.
To that end, the government has this year formed the Welfare Working Group and told it to take a hard look at long-term welfare dependency. Of course this focus and the language used - including the government's edict that the group wasn't allowed to even discuss benefit levels - immediately raised the hackles of some and the hints and sceptical murmurs around the Welfare Working Group (WWG) have been flowing ever since.
There's talk of beneficiary bashing, insurance-based systems and time limits, which has hardly been discouraged by the Group's description of the current welfare system as "unsustainable" and its tendency to spin the most alarmist statistics available, even if some of them are downright misleading.
But we don't know anything for certain yet; not until the group releases its second report, which is its "options paper", in a fortnight's time. We might suspect that a centre-right government wants costs cut and won't be afraid of using some stick to achieve that, and knowing this government we can assume that this group, like every other taskforce and review before it, is a kite-flying exercise used to see exactly how much it thinks it can get away with. But we don't know.
Having said that, following the interview with WWG Chair Paula Rebstock on Q+A this morning, it looks increasingly as if the focus will be on more "quid pro quo" between the state and beneficiaries.
In other words, beneficiary groups may be placated with more money to assist those looking for work, but may also be enraged by more compulsion or even time limits being introduced. On one hand, 'we're here to help you and train you'... but on the other, you'd better take it or else we'll kick you to the curb'.
Rebstock seemed to especially stress that young people would not be able to leave school and go straight onto a benefit, without some requirement to continue their education or training. "That would be an unacceptable thing" overseas, she said admiringly.
Of course the concept's nothing new. Requiring teens to be in education, training or work was Labour party policy under Mike Moore at the 1993 elections, and National party policy in 2008. Good luck enforcing it. As governments tend to find out, real life is much, much messier than nice, clean slogans.
For example, the Group's inclination seems to be for some form of work-testing for those on Sickness and Invalid's benefits. But 40 percent of those on the Sickness Benefit are mentally ill, so is fair to tell them to pull themselves together, get out the door to work regardless of how severe their OCD or bi-polar conditions are?
On the Invalid's Benefit you'll find the "terminally ill" and the "totally blind". Are we going to force them into work, 'or else'? Those on the DPB are by far the largest group of beneficiaries. Do we just saying child-raising no longer matters, it's work or nothing even if your kid is only five? Or four? Or two?
But the perhaps the biggest reality check the Group and the government face is this: the jobs just ain't there.
Rebstock thinks otherwise. In the interview she said the economy has created over 500,000 jobs since 1986 and questioning the number of jobs is "a cop out".
Which is unmitigated nonsense. The New Zealand economy creates and destorys hundreds of thousands of jobs ever year, so I assume her 500,000 figure is net gain. But with no mention of immigration, birth-rates and the like, or what kind of jobs they are, the figure is meaningless.
What I can tell you is this, from Statistics New Zealand: In 2006, at the peak of our recent economic growth, we had a net gain of roughly 30,000 jobs. In much tougher times, 2008, the net gain was barely 9,000 jobs.
If you can figure out how 325,000 goes into 9,000 you're better at maths than I am.
So let me say it again... the jobs ain't there.
The really interesting question becomes how we create them, and leads us slap, bang into ideology.
You see, the WWG likes to say that in 1960 only two percent of the working-age population were on benefits. In 2008, that had reached 10 percent. Cue crisis.
But step back and ask yourself what's changed since 1960. You can't ignore the recession and the jobs lost. But the market will rebound and find places for many of the skilled New Zealanders who have struggled over the past few years.
No, I'm talking about bigger social changes that account for big chunks of those on benefits who weren't there a generation or two ago.
For example, no-fault divorce naturally means there are more women on the DPB, and that may be a better thing than someone saying in a bad or abusive marriage because of stigma or lack of money. Second, we've closed down the mental hospitals. Folk we would have been unquestionably been caring for in hospitals will now be some of those on the Invalid's Benefit.
But biggest upheaval of all is that we've slashed the public sector. In 1960, a lot of the bums, the misfits, the uneducated, the unwell and the unmotivated would have been working down the Railways... or building roads... or pushing paper in an office somewhere. Or on the very honestly-named "make work schemes".
This was so commonplace we made a TV series about it and had a laugh. It got people out of bed in the morning, created a work habit, gave people less time to become a social nuisance.
In the 1980s and '90s we decided that was inefficient and the market was better placed to employ these folks. (And of course the bonus for business was that the sudden over-supply of labour drove down wages, which helped create the wage gap with Australia... but that's re-hashing my previous post).
Problem is, it doesn't. (Altogether now...) The jobs ain't there.
So as out of vogue as it may be, perhaps it's time for a re-think. Perhaps the WWG could crunch some numbers comparing the cost of inefficient public services yet small beneficiary numbers on one hand with that of trim public services yet swollen benefit numbers on the other.
As we speak, Matt McCarten is running a by-election campaign on just this ideain Mana. He reckons that a few quick polytech courses followed by some government-created jobs repairing state houses, caring for the elderly and helping in school classrooms could deal to Mana's 3000 unemployed tout suite.
I laughed when he first told me; it sounded like the political equivalent of wearing corduroy and paisley. But you know what? I haven't heard any better, more grounded ideas recently.
So the onus for that is now on the WWG. Is it just manufacturing a crisis and spinning some propoganda for a government with pre-determined ideas, or has it got something practical to say? We'll know by the end of the month.