Today's Press has one anecdote, though: one gang-related family that's been on benefit for more than two decades and has received emergency assistance for swimming pool repairs on one of their many properties and for new tyres for their 2007 Chrysler. Farrar comments in horror. But Lindsay Mitchell sees the bigger picture: why can the Press get a full case history on one family when researchers are refused OIA requests on aggregate statistics? It feels a lot more like priming the public to accept some changes to the welfare system than honestly trying to assess the state of the system.
I'd emailed Paula Bennett's office after my last post, trying to get some of the kind of information that Lindsay has been trying to get -- I spend a week in my current policy issues class on poverty and welfare and wanted a better picture of the New Zealand stats. I suggested that if the problem were past records held in paper form, having some summer interns code the data would be pretty useful. Here's the reply I received from Hon. Ms. Bennett:
Dear Mr CramptonWhen I emailed MSD again asking particularly for data on recipients who entered the system since 1996, I received no reply and didn't have time to follow it up.
Thank you for your email of 17 August 2009 regarding your recent request to the Ministry of Social Development for information about the lifetime uptake of benefits by beneficiaries.
You advise that you have been told that case records prior to 1996 are only held in paper format. I can advise that the Ministry's SWIFTI system did not exist before 1991. Because of the phased way that SWIFTI built to the functionality that it has today it does not contain full records of people who started their first spell on benefit prior to 1996.
Between the early 1980's and 1991 a much simpler electronic system was used. This system could track a person's interaction with the benefit system at an individual client file level, but could not collate duration information about all beneficiaries, and therefore could not provide 'average duration'.
Prior to the introduction of the first computer system client interactions were recorded in paper files. Most of these paper records will now have been destroyed in line with archiving legislation. For this reason interns completing a 'data entry' exercise would never be able to provide the information that you are seeking.
The Ministry can only really be certain about duration information that it holds for people aged in their early thirties or younger (i.e. those whose first interaction with the benefit system would have been after 1996 when full SWIFTT capture of information began).
I hope this clarifies the situation for you.
We really need better stats on which to base policy decisions. Anecdotes aren't enough.