Four Questions about putting cancer patients on the Job Seekers allowance

Gareth MorganTax and Welfare

It was revealed yesterday that people diagnosed with cancer and receiving treatment for that cancer (who are not deemed terminally ill) can only receive government support to live via the jobseekers allowance, not the disability allowance. The jobseekers allowance ironically requires people to be actively seeking work, when by virtue of their cancer diagnosis and treatment they cannot work.

We should note here that there are people who continue to work when receiving cancer treatment, if they wish to, are able to negotiate it and they have an understanding workplace. So in this article we are focussed on people who are either too ill to maintain work, or do not have understanding or flexible workplaces.

The numbers of people with cancer on the Job Seekers Allowance are unknown, but Radio NZ reports that 806 cancer suffers who are on the jobseekers allowance had an active exception from actively seeking work due to ‘illness’. The situation appears quite silly, and extremely stressful for those in the situation. So here are five questions we have for the Minister about this policy.

1. Why draw the line here?

Minster Tolley is quoted as saying the government had to draw a line somewhere; if cancer patients were given special consideration, other people would want those considerations as well. Would most New Zealanders feel that drawing such a line was in the spirit of the intention of a welfare system?

A slippery slope argument for people with a significant and debilitating illnesses seems a peculiarly mean spirited position to take. If the spirit of the welfare system is to provide a cushion for those in significant hardship, being unable to work due to cancer treatment would seem to be well over the imaginary line the Minister is drawing.

This particular issue is another example of is the ongoing expense, stigmatization and disempowerment that targeted and punitive welfare systems such as ours create for people in difficult and stressful circumstances. It all provides further support for a universal system of support, such as an Unconditional Basic Income (UBI). This would provide everyone with an income, no questions asked, and leave people to make their own decisions on how to lead their lives. Such a policy innovation is long overdue.

2. Does forcing people back to work help them in the long run?

What evidence is there that actively seeking work is beneficial to individuals who are either having or have just completed cancer treatment (presumably if a cancer is not diagnosed ‘as terminal’) or to the economy? It may be that getting these people back to work is a actually positive step both for the individual and the economy as a whole. Equally, the opposite may well be true – it may be better to let people rest and recuperate, and deal with what can be significant physical and psychological disabilities that result from cancer treatment in many cases. That approach might help increase a person’s productivity and prevent further sickness or hospitalisation in the long run.

Before we undertake such punitive action, surely we should know whether a requirement to ‘actively seek work’ prior to a full recovery is in fact more costly to the economy overall.

3. Is hitting people with a stick the best way to get them back to work?

What evidence is there that a requirement during cancer treatment to ‘actively seek work’ is an effective way to get a cancer sufferer back into work when they are presumably ‘fit for work’?

If one of the aims is to ensure that people with cancer (who have treatments which renders their cancer ‘non terminal – whatever this actually means) can get back into the workforce without too much delay (if this is proved beneficial) are there more effective policies? For example working with that person’s former employer (if there is one) or putting them on a job seeker allowance at the point they were actually deemed ‘fit for work’?

Again the only reason the government has to wield a huge stick to get people back to work is because the benefit system provides no incentive to do so – another problem that would be overcome with an Unconditional Basic Income.

4. How much does all this bureaucracy cost?

How much money is the government spending on administration of cancer suffers on a Job Seekers Allowance? Is this more or less than what they would spend administering the same people on the seemingly more appropriate Supported Living Payment? Does the requirement to obtain, and enter into the welfare system, constant ‘sick notes’ from a doctor and hospital that excuse a person with cancer from ‘actively seeking work’, cost the system (in money, time and indirect stress effects) more, than the alternatives?

A Universal Basic Income would put an end to this madness and stigmatisation, and dispense with the bureaucratic hordes that come with it.

Four Questions about putting cancer patients on the Job Seekers allowance was last modified: December 15th, 2015 by Gareth Morgan
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Gareth Morgan