Poverty, Policy and the State, by Michael O’Brien

Policy Press, 2007, vii + 280 pp, hbk, 1 86134 799 2, £60

In this well-researched study O’Brien locates New Zealand’s social security system, its various reforms, and the debate about those reforms, in their international context. New Zealand, like many countries, has experienced both rapid economic and social reform and also both growing poverty and income inequality during the last twenty years, and also like many countries it has experienced rapid change in social security structures.

A historical overview gives us an understanding of the dual nature of social security provision in New Zealand: a Universal Family Benefit supplemented by income-tested benefits for those of working age not in employment. This is followed by a discussion of growing inequality, of who is at greatest risk of poverty (families with dependent children, women, lone parents, and minority ethnic groups) and of the effects of income poverty (blighted lives and depleted opportunities). Globalisation and social change are explored and related to recent changes in the social security system, and in particular the movement towards a ‘core’ (income-tested) benefit with recipients allocated to different categories in relation to their labour market readiness. Chapters are then given to successive administrations and the tax and benefit changes which they have implemented, and in particular to the greater importance of ‘workfare’ elements in the system and the replacement of universal support for children (Universal Family Benefit) by targeted support (‘targeted’ in this book meaning ‘income tested’ (p.124)). Case management and an emphasis on paid work have now replaced a system containing important universal elements, and the author’s verdict is that the new system entrenches poverty for large sections of the population, and particularly amongst the poorest families with children.

It’s a pity that the author has decided that he doesn’t have the space to study New Zealand’s universal and non-income tested pension system, as that remains an important contribution to social cohesion and a significant incentive to save for one’s old age. A book on this would be welcome. Such a volume might inspire New Zealand’s next government to take the country’s own pension system as a model for the next reform of social security.