WINZ: where hope and dignity go to die

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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The rising costs of low-waged work

A few months back I was at a picketline to protest the low-wages at Alderman Drive, PAK’n’SAVE* in Auckland. The wages at this particular supermarket were pathetic: the owner Rayner Bonnington, had offered his staff a measly 32 cents pay rise even though the minimum wage (which sat at $14.25 an hour) had already been  raised by 50 cents in Aotearoa because of the annual increase,  this year. Meaning the pay raise Rayner offered would sit below our minimum wage.

Rayner pays his staff poverty wages to stack his shelves and sell food they likely cannot even afford themselves because of the subhuman wages he pays them. I got talking to a Union delegate who was at the picket also, and we discussed the much publicised use of zero-hour contracts by fast-food giants such as Starbucks and Wendy’s in Aotearoa. These contracts are used all over the world, particularly in the United Kingdom, to disempower and impoverish workers and strip away their rights to guaranteed hours so profitable companies can save money. The delegate told me:

“If you are on zero hours it’s pretty obvious that you would be better off on the dole. If your hours fluctuate above and below the threshold at which you might be entitled to additional assistance, the dole would provide more certainty and stability,

Especially, when one hour paid work a week is considered employment in this country.”

I have been on welfare, lots. I am part of what some of my case managers call the ‘revolving door’ at WINZ (Work and Income) – as in, I keep coming back with my hand out like Oliver Twist asking, “please Sir, can I have some more?”

I’ve also spent the better part of the last decade working low-paid and insecure hospitality work and I’ve always been subject to casual contracts, which effectively operate just like a zero hours contract. I have worked up to three jobs so I can scrounge enough hours together to pay back my student loan and pay bills and rent. I rarely, if ever,  know how much my pay cheque is going to be or how many hours I will get from the jobs I am working. Some weeks I earn 300 bucks, sometimes a bit more,  but often a lot less.

When I have been sacked for whatever reason from whatever crap job I am working, or if I’m simply struggling to scrape together enough hours to break 20 hours a week (under-employment is a massive problem in this country) I find myself at WINZ again.

Trust me when I say: I really don’t want to be there.

Being denied the use of the toilets (‘cause hey, I might do crack in there), then being told by some plucky and patronising case manager who checked their compassion and self-awareness at the door,  that I just need to “think ‘positive’ about my situation” (as if a change in attitude is going to change a stagnate job market) as I hold back tears, ‘cause honestly this shit is just embarrassing, isn’t exactly my idea of a good time.

The humiliating experiences of being on welfare aside, at the very least, as this Union Delegate pointed out to me, I always knew exactly how much I was going to get a week: around 250 bucks.

Unlike so many of the hospitality jobs I have worked where I have been ‘let go’ without any warning, I would at least get a courtesy letter from WINZ telling me in a week my welfare would be sanctioned because I had “failed to meet my job seeker requirements”. Whatever the fuck that means because let’s be honest: no-one honours the requirement to look for a job eight hours a day, five days a week.

But the guarantee that the State will look after you when you are down-and-out is disintegrating as safety-nets in Aotearoa are being systematically gutted. Since the late 1980s right-wing and nominally left-wing governments and politicians (notably Labour’s Roger Douglas and National’s Ruth Richardson) have implemented economic and social policies that have eroded welfare and cut public spending and made it harder and harder for the political underclass to step up on the social and economic ladder and access upward mobility.

National MP Paula Bennett, who traded in her humanity for parliamentary status and a secure pay cheque (which pays well above a liveable wage), is committed to breaking the cycle of welfare dependency in Aotearoa and has undertaken brutal welfare reforms. In 2013, Paula targeted the youth benefit, those on the sickness and invalid benefits and sole parents on the DPB (Dependant Parent benefit) – some of Aotearoa’s most vulnerable and often the most in need of state support and care.

National’s recent 2015 budget will push parents on the DPB into work when their tamariki turn three, instead of the previous five. Rather than spending an extra two years focused on raising their beautiful tamariki – Aotearoa’s next generation – sole parents on the DPB will be forced into work, and will be expected to take whatever job is offered no matter how meaningless and underpaid – or suffer cuts to their welfare payments.

The people who will be affected the most by National’s latest welfare reforms are the children of parents who will go to school with empty bellies when sanctions are placed on their parent’s DPB, if sole parents fail to meet ‘job seeker requirements’. You have to wonder if Paula and other National politicians took this into consideration when they wrote this reform. Poor and callous governance from our political leaders has a lot more to answer for than ‘poor parenting’ does.

All over the world tory governments are waging an endless war against the political underclass. In England, the ongoing sanctions against people who receive welfare and are deemed ‘fit for work’ have resulted in many welfare deaths. One of the most publicised such deaths was David Clapson, as the Independent reported:

[…]a diabetes sufferer who was found dead from acute lack of insulin after his benefits had been stopped. There was no food in his flat – or in his stomach, an autopsy found – and he had just £3.44 in his bank account. Why? Because the ex-soldier, who was reportedly found with a pile of printed CVs near his body, had been deemed not to be taking the search for work seriously enough.

David died starving and alone.

In the United Kingdom, the Black Triangle Campaign has compiled a haunting ‘welfare body count’. So far it is estimated 60 people who suffered from disability or mental health issues have died needlessly like David or taken their own lives because of the threat of sanctions or implemented cuts to their benefit. (You can find painful and devastating examples of the human cost of welfare sanctions in England here).

Aotearoa has its own growing body count in relation to cuts to public spending and the systematic failure of our government to take care of its most vulnerable. In 2010, Bruce Arnold took his own life after ongoing unemployment and battles with government services. Simon Priest, who was related to Bruce, addresses the Prime Minster in a piece for the NZ Herald, saying:

Prime Minister, on the night of August 18, 2010, my uncle Bruce Arnold took his own life. He was 60 years old. He leaves behind a wife and son. After a long struggle with your various mental health and ACC agencies and unemployment, depression finally got the better of him.

With social bonds providing financial incentives to bully people who have a mental health diagnosis into work in Aotearoa, life for those who need support from the state is only going to get worse.

I talked to Corie Haddock, Lifewise Community Development Manager, about the impacts of welfare reforms. He told me:

“The reality is we have a government that doesn’t care about the people of this country.

Welfare should be about two things: catching and supporting those in need, and providing opportunity for those people to change and grow. The WINZ system doesn’t do either of those things.”

When I asked Corrie if he believed the ongoing welfare reforms were punitive to our most vulnerable he responded, “Absolutely, they are completely punitive towards those most in need and the cost is another generation of disempowered people.”

Our government are punishing people who fail to secure jobs that simply aren’t there. Overwhelmingly, the jobs that are available in this country are demeaning, poorly-paid and offer almost no security.

The depressing reality is that welfare, despite the punitive reforms and constant threats of sanctions, can still offer more financial stability (no matter how meagre the state ‘hand-out’ is) than much low-paid work in sectors such as the service industry.

Political parties in this country often talk about ‘job creation’, but rarely do politicians speak of meaningful job creation.

We need jobs that serve people and their wellbeing, not just the economy. We need employers that guarantee hours and act with their workers best interests at heart. What needs to be a priority of political parties in this country is the creation of jobs that contribute to society and our communities, not the profit margins of massively lucrative companies.

In face of mass unemployment in the 1930s New Zealanders got together forming powerful movements to fight for the interests of the poor and working class, culminating in the victory of the first Labour government and creation of the welfare state. If we as citizens of Aotearoa cannot find the courage and conviction to come together in great and undefeatable numbers to demand an equal society. Where wealth is evenly dispersed and employers pay a liveable wage, we will have condemned the coming generations to life-times of debt, depression and disconnection. People in Aotearoa deserve more than just to survive, they deserve to thrive.

This blog is a cross-post from The Daily Blog. 

*Many other ‘PAK’nSAVE’s treat their staff appallingly and pickets have also taken place in Rotorua and more recently in Whakatane:

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