As the government ramps up attacks on welfare recipients defensive actions have happened across the country as those on welfare and their supporters advocate for their right to dignity and a living income (not that benefits can really be called that). The status quo we are defending, however, is a much less than ideal situation, what we need is to change the way our society defines and values ‘work’.
The Domestic Purposes Benefit (DPB), which is one of several to be merged into a new ‘job seeker benefit’, was formed through the Social Security Amendment Act in 1973 with the first payments starting in May of 1974. It was originally set at a level that would enable single mothers to care for their children as a full time job without having to enter the work-force. A year before the Social Security Amendment Act, American feminist Selma James launched the wages for house work campaign, arguing that the work done in the home should be financially compensated.
While the DPB only applies to single parents, New Zealand must have looked somewhat progressive in the early 70s. Several decades later however, there is an enormous stigma in being a ‘DPB mum’. Back in 2002, six years before he would become prime minister, John Key described women receiving the DPB as “breeding for a business”. Work done outside of the wage-labour system- and being a parent is a huge amount of work- is not recognised by the likes of Key as having value. Even from a purely economic perspective, the reproduction of the next generation of the workforce is a service capitalism is getting on the cheap.
One nation has taken steps to ensure that this work is valued. In 2006 Venezuela began paying the nation’s poorest housewives 80% of the minimum wage for work done in the home. “The world is beginning to recognise and value women’s hidden contribution to society but Venezuela goes further” wrote James at the time. “This is finally a wage for housework, something we have demanded since 1972!”
If a country in Latin America can achieve this then surely New Zealand could, if a social movement was demanding it. While a wages for housework/parenting scheme would be funded by “the taxpayer” all taxes ultimately come from wealth produced by workers. If it wasn’t for workers producing goods and services of a greater value than they are paid in wages, there would be no profits.to tax.
A changing society
Promoting the campaign in the 1970s, James wrote “When capital pays husbands they get two workers, not one.” Society- at least in countries such as the US and New Zealand- has changed substantially since then; women are no longer expected to be “housewives” but to join the workforce. While the expanded amount of career choices for women is no doubt a positive, alongside this wages have fallen so much that few families can live on one parent’s income.
Wages for housework could allow one parent (of whatever gender) to forgo participating in the traditional wage-labour workforce, or could allow two parents to work part-time instead of full time. But another social change that has happened in recent decades is the rise in single parent families. According to the most recently available census data single parent families make up close to a third of families with children (32%) and the percentage is higher for Maori and Pasifika (44% and 38% respectively).
According to the June 2012 National Benefit Fact Sheet, 88% of people receiving the DPB are female. While wages for housework doesn’t have to be a ‘woman’s issue’ as the statistics indicate this is a policy that will benefit women. In the workforce women are still paid less than men, former Employers and Manufacturers Association boss Alasdair Thompson justified this as a result of women having “monthly sick problems” and while comments ultimately lost him his job, similar attitudes persist among the employing class; In their submission on paid parental leave, Business New Zealand believed extending leave would lead to “human capital depreciation”- workers losing skills by taking time off for child rearing.
With these barriers to women participating in the workforce as equals of men, it could be argued that paying wages for domestic work could further entrench the situation, as most recipients of domestic-work wages would be female. This is a valid concern. Redressing issues like gender pay equality, and the division of labour within the family would need to be addressed concurrently, though this fails to address the issues of deprivation presently effecting single mothers. If we can change the paradigm which sees those on the DPB as being bludgers, “breeding for a business” to one which recognises them as an integral part of the working class, we could potentially make some progress.