This article was written by Anne Russell, originally published at Scoop.co.nz and reprinted in the June issue of The Spark.
Sue Bradford will speak on beneficiary rights on the opening night of Socialism 2012.
The battle over publicly-funded contraception in the US has led to many women breaking ranks with the Republican Party, who like to deny women autonomy over their bodies. At first glance, the National Party seems to be moving in the opposite direction from its US counterpart. The government recently announced proposals to put public funding towards contraception for beneficiaries. Not for poor people, mark you although many low-income earners also struggle to afford contraception—just for people who receive state support. While easy universal access to contraception would be a splendid idea, this particular policy does not appear to have autonomous women’s best interests at heart. Indeed, it arguably plays a part in controlling the reproductive lives of female beneficiaries.
While US Republicans apparently want all women to have more babies, National wants only certain women to stop reproducing. Minster for Social Development Paula Bennett said on TVNZ’s Q&A last June that while she was a fan of long-term reversible contraception for beneficiaries, “I don’t think we’re quite at compulsory sort of stages,”—as though it is a stage that might be reached at some point. The implication is alarming; as one person put it on Facebook: “The state deciding who is allowed to have children: historically, not awesome.”
There is a social Darwinist perception that beneficiaries are on the dole because of personal failings. Often these people are living outside a nuclear family structure (heaven forbid) and thus are seen as a threat to it by conservatives. But neo-liberal economics arguably poses the greatest direct threat to the nuclear family, atomising individuals and shunting them in separate directions according to their economic productivity. As such, motherhood, it seems, is not a social good to be supported by all, but a rare privilege of the affluent individual. Although taxes are the price paid for a civilised society, this goodwill apparently should not extend to non-profitable activities like child-rearing.
Although this idea has intensified in recent decades, it is not a new attitude. In a capitalist framework, having the time and material resources (if not always the know-how) to provide adequate care for babies and children has always been a luxury of the wealthy. Until recent times, women who conceived out of wedlock became social pariahs. A century and a half ago, as women were not allowed to own property, vote or get paid work in a formal economy, the babies they produced were offered little social protection. The only safeguard against penury was marriage to a man who could afford to look after children. Being a wife and mother was the only viable source of employment most women could hope to have.
Feminist movements have helped change this, and in the global North many women now are far more capable of being financially and socially autonomous, to a degree. However, the ideal of work-beyond-motherhood was taken by many to mean that motherhood itself could be demonised, and subsequent economic policy has eagerly supported this. Women now have rights to recognition beyond the home, but this hasn’t necessarily resulted in greater autonomy across the board. More often than not, poor women get to join the oppression that poor men have suffered under for centuries—to work long hours for someone else’s financial profit in an industrial framework that relies on great inequality to function.
Although giving birth is theoretically productive for this economy, in that it provides future workers, taking the necessary time off to raise these children is an economic drain.
Such a framework is ultimately unsustainable, but calls for change are commonly ignored by dominant societal power structures. In its capacity as regulator, the government is largely responsible for ensuring the economy works. However, two powerful forces are responsible for the emergence of beneficiaries in an economy. The upper echelons of Western government had unprotected sex with neo-liberal economics, and eventually gave birth to a financial crisis and a mountain of debt. As of 2012, big business has not knitted any booties nor changed the economy’s nappies in quite some time. Despite this lax care-giving, the government keeps its mouth shut when big business gets drunk and violent at family events. Relatives shake their head in disapproval at the government’s inept parenting, but often neglect to hold big business to account. While those crazy lovers nut it out in the back room, the economy is left crying in a cot.
With such incompetent or uninterested parents, it’s unsurprising that this economy, born around 2008, is still unable to walk on its own. But beneficiaries are a product of such a broken economy, not the cause. The financial crisis was not preceded by increased public spending, but by a swathe of privatisation and tax cuts. Public spending serves to undo the drastic personal and social consequences of free market reform. As such, most beneficiaries do not freely choose to take the benefit, but do so from necessity. In desperation (or ‘confidence’, as John Key likes to think of it), many are looking hard for work in increasing numbers, despite growing unemployment rates. A university graduate choosing between a freezing works job, the dole and starvation hardly marks a healthy society, but apparently any job, no matter the personal, social and environmental cost, is more honourable than taking the dole.
Welfare reform has forced parents to look for a job (on top of the work they are already doing raising a child), but provides little to no jobs for them to get. If neither effective child-rearing nor work in the formal economy is possible, it is difficult to see that welfare reform on its own has any purpose other than keeping parents in a state of constant agitation, stuck halfway between home and the office. The pressure comes on harder if women give birth while on the dole, as they will be forced to look for work when the child is 1 year old rather than 5. Choice offered to women here is either taking possibly health-altering contraception (as I shall discuss later), or being deeper thrust into government-created and/or condoned poverty as punishment for giving birth. National’s policies seem to involve taking a firm grip on beneficiaries’ hands and telling them to stop hitting themselves.
There is some puzzlement at women’s outrage around the contraceptive policy—after all, having resources provided to enjoy sex safely is what many women have been waiting for. But it is the role of doctors and other trained health professionals to provide contraception, not the benefit office. WINZ case managers are not renowned for their sensitivity to clients; take for example the woman who was told to dumb down her CV so she could get a job. Getting the benefit, even if being unemployed is usually for reasons far beyond the beneficiary’s control, is to be made as humiliating an experience as possible. Given the lack of effective customer service training at WINZ, it is unlikely that adequate training will be given to deal with particularly sensitive issues surrounding a beneficiary’s reproductive life.
Of particular concern are the negative side effects that long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) can have on women. Copper intra-uterine devices (IUDs) are unsuitable for women who have heavy or painful periods, as it may worsen them. Depo-provera and the contraceptive implant work via hormones, and can cause depression—hardly helpful in getting beneficiaries motivated for commercial work— euphoria, weight gain, hair loss, decreased libido, among other things. The compromised bone density caused by prolonged depo-provera usage is particularly troubling, as the teenage women targeted by the contraceptive policy will need to maintain good bone health in order to avoid osteoporosis later on.
Although all this information is readily available online, many may not have easy access to computers or know exactly what to look for.
There is clearly a need for more discourse around safe sex, since it is often not practised by either gender. But perhaps this debacle could be avoided if women stopped having sex entirely. Certainly an element of slut-shaming is present; at least one WINZ officer reportedly told a woman to “shut your legs”. Suspiciously, no contraceptive policy counterpart for men exists, although long-term reversible male contraception is available. Moreover, LARCs do not prevent STDs, and so may be less appropriate forms of contraception for non-monogamous people.
Will WINZ case managers provide advice on condom usage, to male beneficiaries as well as female? If not, it appears that this government is implying that people who have sex outside of a long-term monogamous relationship, particularly women, deserve any and all of the potentially negative consequences of their lifestyle. And strangely, the same follows even for those who want to look after children, monogamous or otherwise. ‘Breeding for a career’ is a compliment when it is economically convenient to have women fill that role, and an insult when not.