I’ve just come from a WINZ (Work and Income New Zealand) office out in East Auckland, I often go as an advocate for people on welfare. I do this because I know going it alone, mostly, means you will be denied entitlements, often leave empty handed and likely, humiliated. The person who I supported today, I will call Emma (most people on welfare would rather stay anonymous when I ask if I can write about them). Emma, had had her benefit sanctioned because she was unable to attend a few scheduled appointments with her WINZ caseworker. We discovered later that an IRD (Inland Revenue) error was at the centre of this ordeal.
Over the last year Emma, has undergone two major surgeries: one on her neck, another on her elbow, leaving her in constant pain and on heavy pain meds. On top of this, a few years ago she was diagnosed with early onset arthritis in addition to injuries to her nerves and spine. Her ongoing health issues make working incredibly hard because she can’t predict when she will have good days and when she will be stuck at home in chronic pain. She still can’t lift anything heavier than a milk jug, can’t sit in a fixed position for any period of time, and suffers from insomnia that will often keep her awake for 40 hours or more. That’s when the seizures start. Her health issues impact and compound her mental health which just adds to her brain fog. Depression, the physical pain and the concoction of pills Emma is on to control her physical pain, make it hard to think clearly and just remember day-to-day things – like those all important WINZ appointments.
Between all the physical and emotional hurdles which Emma faces every-single-day of her life, she missed six scheduled appointments at WINZ. She was operating under the information she’d previously been given; that she needed to submit a medical certificate every three months and have a yearly review. Emma didn’t realise she wasn’t in compliance and as such, her benefit was sanctioned and cut to the bone. Resulting in her missing rent, having no money for food, and barely managing to get by. Because what better way to kick someone in the guts who is already struggling, than to to cut them off economically?
I want to say right now, right here: I feel welfare sanctions are a cruel form of (economic) punishment which are punitively administered for the smallest slights of ‘bad behaviour’. Which include (but are not limited to): forgetting or being unable to make a scheduled appointment, failing a drug test (seriously, don’t tell me *you* as a fully employed person, has never ever smoked a bit of dope, dropped a pill in the weekend, or downed a wine or three every other night), and refusing to take a job that may or may not be suitable for you.
If you want to get a welfare sanction lifted you are required to go and plead your case, to whatever caseworker has been assigned to you at the next available appointment. Either that or risk missing even more rent payments and then in turn, risk joining the 40,000 people in Aotearoa, who are homeless and living on the streets.
The WINZ appointment we had wasn’t exactly the worst I have attended. I’ve had caseworkers out right lie to me, make up WINZ policy, and actively yell in my face for calling them out on their bullshit and lies. It is always luck of the draw when it comes to WINZ: will the caseworker have empathy or will sociopathy be their preferred state of being? Who knows? But luckily this particular caseworker operated from a place of semi-empathy and reinstated her benefit with back-pay. When I asked for a food grant for Emma, the casework granted it without forcing us to jump through moral hoops. Being poor is now an individual and moral issue; not a structural or state issue.
I am just going to put-it out there and get all radical: No one in this damn country should be forced to beg for food. However, every single day those on welfare are forced to do just that; beg for their most basic entitlements. Only a few weeks ago RadioNZ reported that over 200 million worth of WINZ entitlements had been denied to tens-of-thousands of beneficiaries,
“The figures were in a report obtained by Newsub’s The Nation under the Official Information Act.
It showed 150,000 beneficiaries and low income families were not getting payments totalling $200m a year that they were entitled to.”
More often than not when I ask for a food grant the caseworker will demand the person in need of food justify why they deserve it and ask what happened to any extra dole money they had. Oh, I don’t know? Lack of dole cash might have something to do with the cold, hard, and shitty fact that WINZ payments are so low it barely pays rent let alone guarantees the basics like: food.
I talked to a sole mum on WINZ a few months ago who had recently discovered dumpster diving. She was so excited about it all because as she told me “I now have food security. I know I can find food no matter what. My family will not go hungry.” Ya’ fucking know our country is fucked when a sole mum is finding hope at the bottom of a trash can. And food security means going through bins at the backs of gourmet supermarkets like Farro to avoid going hungry.
In the end we got a food grant, we re-instated Emma’s welfare payments and got back-pay. We still have to go and print out some IRD material to get everything fixed up, which it seems WINZ can’t manage in an office full of printers. I am hoping tonight she has a tiny bit of economic breathing space. But what worries me the most is the despair and the sheer terror so many people I support at WINZ are feeling, this includes Emma. She bluntly summarised to me, her experiences with WINZ:
“Constant, exhausting terror, dulling your cognitive abilities because you’re in perpetual fight/flight mode.”
On the way home from WINZ, Emma told me she had come up with a ‘Plan B’ if she couldn’t sort out the WINZ sanctions. This plan was simple in execution: she was going to take her own life. She told me she didn’t want to “come across as dramatic” but she couldn’t see any other way out of it.
I understand what I just typed is heavy and hard; suicide is always a tough and painful subject. But I think we need a compassionate and public conversation around the very real and deep trauma that our State Social Systems are causing so many people. Like, forcing people to live off so little they are picking food out of a bin to gain food security is not okay. It is not fucking okay that every damn time I go to a WINZ office, caseworkers are actively making up policy. Even the ‘semi-empathetic’ caseworker we got today, still, lied and told Emma it was part of her “WINZ obligation that [she] come for an appointment once a month.” That isn’t true. Tonight, I spoke with an ex WINZ caseworker, who told me,
“What we [WINZ caseworkers] did to beneficiaries was awful… we were encouraged to dehumanise them.”
It is not okay that nearly everyone I have advocated for at WINZ, has broken down in tears during appointments and have often been close to a panic attack. Most people I advocate for at WINZ unanimously tell me it is a humiliating and utterly defeating experience.
Being poor, being unemployed, being on welfare, being down on your luck, or struggling with serious health issues like Emma… doesn’t make you less than; it doesn’t suddenly make you sub-human. The fact I even have to type those words as a reminder that, regardless, of what economic and social position you hold, you are still a human being, makes me incredibly sad.
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