The insight behind the welfare pedestal is that welfare payments can provide perverse incentives by encouraging some people to remain on welfare rather than to seek paid employment. Over the last decade or so, concern about an emerging problem of inter-generational welfare dependency (in non-indigenous communities as well as indigenous communities) has led to some tightening up in the provisions attached to unemployment benefits. It is too soon to claim that the problems associated with unemployment benefits and pretend work schemes have all been resolved, but the problems are now widely recognized and some appropriate remedial action is being taken.
The example of a government program contributing to the welfare pedestal that Pearson gives in his recent lecture, ‘Pathways to Prosperity for Indigenous People’, is family benefits. He suggests:
‘Life on the welfare pedestal in a country that distributes money through a generous family tax benefit system is quite a rational choice’ (The Sir Ronald Trotter Lecture, New Zealand Business Roundtable, 2010).
I had not previously thought of the family tax benefit in that way. I have tended to view the family tax benefit as a kind of negative income tax, providing net benefits for families with low and modest incomes. I was previously aware of adverse incentives resulting from fairly high effective marginal tax rates for people on fairly modest family incomes above the point where the means test begins to cut in (about $45,000). According to the way economists usually look at these things, however, a family with four children obtaining $19,600 per annum from family benefits has no disincentive to obtaining additional income from work of more than $25,000.
In another paper Pearson acknowledges that the absence of punitive marginal tax rates is probably not an important consideration when people in Cape York Peninsula make their decisions about how many hours of the week they allocate to work or leisure. He writes:
‘Indigenous parents are having large families at an earlier age. Their welfare payments add up to a significant yearly wage. This income is received without them ever having to make any active decisions about education or work. When they have started receiving family payments, they face this choice: have an income which they are prepared to exist on for minimal work obligations or work longer hours for a limited increase in income and significantly less leisure time.
The behaviour of people in our communities indicates that many of our people do not intend to increase their income by increasing their labour supply. In some remote communities, it has been difficult to find applicants for the real jobs that do exist, despite the fact that the vast majority of people are unemployed’.
Pearson argues that ‘conditions and incentives to make active and beneficial life choices should apply to family payments’ even though he acknowledges that problems arise because such payments ‘are not indigenous-specific schemes’.
That poses a question: If people make the choice to live on generally available family benefits rather than to earn higher incomes, why should we view this as a problem? I see no problem in individuals choosing to live on low incomes. We should respect the choices that some individuals make to live a life of poverty (and of chastity too, if that is their choice). I can’t see why anyone should have a problem with individuals making whatever income/leisure choice that they desire.
I can see a problem, however, in governments providing family benefits to people who do not have adequate regard for the well-being of their children. I think we (taxpayers/voters) should insist that family assistance should only be provided to parents when they meet conditions such as ensuring that their children attend school regularly. Perhaps it would not be too difficult for a prime minister who has a special interest in educational opportunity to find a simple way for such a condition to be applied to family tax benefits across all sections of the community.