The concept of a welfare pedestal has been popularized by Noel Pearson. As a lawyer and passionate advocate for the interests of aboriginal people who live on the Cape York Peninsula of North Queensland, some readers might expect that he would spend his time arguing for more government hand-outs to remedy social problems in aboriginal communities. However, Pearson recognizes that the welfare programs are actually a major cause of the social problems in those communities and his main focus is on finding ways to stop hand-outs from harming his clients. He is not against government help for his clients, he just wants to ensure that it does them more good than harm.
The insight behind the welfare pedestal is that welfare payments can provide perverse incentives by encouraging some people to remain on welfare rather than to seek paid employment. Over the last decade or so, concern about an emerging problem of inter-generational welfare dependency (in non-indigenous communities as well as indigenous communities) has led to some tightening up in the provisions attached to unemployment benefits. It is too soon to claim that the problems associated with unemployment benefits and pretend work schemes have all been resolved, but the problems are now widely recognized and some appropriate remedial action is being taken.
The example of a government program contributing to the welfare pedestal that Pearson gives in his recent lecture, ‘Pathways to Prosperity for Indigenous People’, is family benefits. He suggests:
‘Life on the welfare pedestal in a country that distributes money through a generous family tax benefit system is quite a rational choice’ (The Sir Ronald Trotter Lecture, New Zealand Business Roundtable, 2010).
I had not previously thought of the family tax benefit in that way. I have tended to view the family tax benefit as a kind of negative income tax, providing net benefits for families with low and modest incomes. I was previously aware of adverse incentives resulting from fairly high effective marginal tax rates for people on fairly modest family incomes above the point where the means test begins to cut in (about $45,000). According to the way economists usually look at these things, however, a family with four children obtaining $19,600 per annum from family benefits has no disincentive to obtaining additional income from work of more than $25,000.
In another paper Pearson acknowledges that the absence of punitive marginal tax rates is probably not an important consideration when people in Cape York Peninsula make their decisions about how many hours of the week they allocate to work or leisure. He writes:
Pearson argues that ‘conditions and incentives to make active and beneficial life choices should apply to family payments’ even though he acknowledges that problems arise because such payments ‘are not indigenous-specific schemes’.
That poses a question: If people make the choice to live on generally available family benefits rather than to earn higher incomes, why should we view this as a problem? I see no problem in individuals choosing to live on low incomes. We should respect the choices that some individuals make to live a life of poverty (and of chastity too, if that is their choice). I can’t see why anyone should have a problem with individuals making whatever income/leisure choice that they desire.
I can see a problem, however, in governments providing family benefits to people who do not have adequate regard for the well-being of their children. I think we (taxpayers/voters) should insist that family assistance should only be provided to parents when they meet conditions such as ensuring that their children attend school regularly. Perhaps it would not be too difficult for a prime minister who has a special interest in educational opportunity to find a simple way for such a condition to be applied to family tax benefits across all sections of the community.