Monthly Archives: December 2013

Teacups and teddy bears

My desk is a mess. My childhood teddy bear lies nose-down on a memo cube a teacup, two tealight holders, and an oil burner crowd out my desk lamp. Stacks of books surround me. Little notes are scattered everywhere. It’s not even controlled chaos. It’s simple unadulterated chaos.

The mess on my desk reflects the state of my mind, to a degree. Clinging on to the familiar and safe (my teddy bear). My commitment to university in the face of the odds of mental health, parenthood, and general life (the stacks of books). My journey to finding peace amidst my often chaotic life (candles). My scattered attempts to organise my life into some sort of coherent, consistent reality (notes). Finally, the teacup, which represents the solution to much of the madness – relaxing and taking time out to think and plan.

It’s a bit of a cliché to take the contents of a personal space and interpret them as a reflection of the self that occupies that space. I could look at it as a disorganised uni student’s life, with no further meaning than just mess. But that’s not any fun at all. My teddy bear and teacup beg to be representations of a difficult inner self.

Who are the rich people not understanding poverty?

I get visits from all over the world. Today, someone from Nigeria read “More rich people who don’t understand poverty“. It made me pause and think about how we think about poverty, and how the definitions change depending on context.

Poverty in NZ is very different from poverty in a third-world country. Their poverty is absolute. There’s no dressing it up, it’s as dire as humanity can experience and still survive. I wonder if they have the same attitudes to poverty that many New Zealanders have. Do they blame the starving for their starvation? Do they feel ashamed of struggling to survive? I wish I knew. And I feel unsettled for wanting to understand absolute poverty from in front of a thousand dollars’ worth of technology. Is it a bit voyeuristic? Or is it just an interest in how people think and how they live? Possibly it’s a bit of both.

Poverty in New Zealand is nothing compared to absolute poverty, but that’s not to say that it should be written off because someone has it worse. Being poor here is still awful. Living in cold, damp homes (sometimes cars, when things get bad), not having enough to eat, having to choose between paying the power and paying the rent – it’s affluent misery by comparison, but misery just the same

The ‘others have it worse’ argument is a great way of shutting down discussion on poverty in our own back yard. That’s not doing anyone any good, apart from those who want to kill the dialogue.

And all the while I imagine my Nigerian reader looking at what we think poverty is and laughing at us.

Not backing down

My ex and I are having a bit of a disagreement. He wants to see his daughter, I want us to see a counsellor so we can communicate effectively so I can tell him what he needs to know about caring for her. It’s become a bit of a stalemate.

He hasn’t seen her much in the last two years. For the first year or so he didn’t even try to. Things were ok between us though. Then he got a new girlfriend and things changed. He was more demanding, wanting his rights. I tried to be helpful, giving him times when she could have her and so on. No  response came to that, probably because I asked him to get his girlfriend to back off. Apparently she’s supposed to be allowed to snark at me whenever she wants, because she’s his girlfriend. And me not wanting to deal with that was enough to make him not take advantage of the times that he could see his daughter.

So things were rocky. What followed was worse –  abusive messages from the girlfriend, veiled threats of kidnapping. That eased off for a while, then came the text bombing of demands (followed closely by a new phone number on my part).

In summary, things went well until the girlfriend, and then it got bad pretty quick. His desire to see his child is variable, and his capacity to do so is unknown – this man got child services called on us because he neglected both kids while I was working long hours.

The one thing I have asked of him through this entire process was clear communication. At first I asked for a face-to-face meeting every so often to talk about our daughter, but he wasn’t happy with that. I suggested free counselling through the family court, but he’s not happy with that.

The only thing he needs to do to see his daughter is to agree to counselling or a periodic meeting to discuss things. He’s digging his toes in and saying that we don’t need to talk, which is a line I disagree with quite strongly. I think he thinks that if he makes me feel bad enough that I’ll just give in and do things his way.

I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing or not. Maybe it’s unreasonable to ask this of him. But then, if he wanted to see his daughter that badly, why not just go along with it, rather than spend months attacking me and demanding. How much is it about her and how much is just trying to gain some sort of victory?

I am very conflicted. He tells me that I’m just hiding him from her to make myself feel powerful. I don’t think so, but I’m not sure of myself any more.

Bleeding-heart Liberal

I tend to write a lot about social welfare and the attacks that our current government are making on it. I defend those who are harmed by the changes being made to the system fairly unconditionally. I’m sure there are people who raise an eyebrow and write me off for such unconditional support.

I’ve been broke. I’ve had to rely on a benefit after my daughter was born, because my partner didn’t work and it took me a couple of months to find a job. I’ve also lived on the Student Allowance, which is a payment specifically for people studying. It’s a lot easier to be on than a benefit, because you don’t have to deal with WINZ all the time. But it’s still not a lot of money, and it’s really not a lot to raise a couple of kids on.

I sympathise with people living on the dole, because I’ve been there. I sympathise with the working poor, because I’ve been there too, working a minimum wage job and trying to raise a child. So when people start having a go at people like me, I get a little uptight. I’m not lazy, or bludging. I used a tool I needed to get out of some holes that I was in.

People back up a bit when I say that I was on the dole. They start sputtering a bit about how I must be an exception or something. thing is, I’m not. There are thousands of people out there that do exactly that. Three quarters of all unemployment beneficiaries on it for less than a year, and all that. the image of the average beneficiary as a useless bludger has to change. It’s just not true for the majority of beneficiaries, and it’s not fair to portray them like this.

But what about all the people who are there long-term? They’re just abusing the system, right? Well, maybe. But the numbers are vanishingly small. By the four-year mark (the first mark after the one-year mark in the study) around 93% of beneficiaries are off the dole, and less than one percent make it to the ten-year mark. So yeah, there are some people who are long-term beneficiaries, and the dole was not supposed to be for people like that, but it’s reality, and the scale is so small that they shouldn’t be used as examples of what people believe the majority of beneficiaries to be like.

I’m not going to try and say that beneficiaries are all sunshine and roses. They have all of the problems that poverty brings, and some do turn criminal. Some game the system, working under the table while claiming the benefit. Some people might get their doctors to give them ‘soft’ medical certificates, so they can keep claiming even when they’re well again. Some mothers might even keep having kids in order to keep getting the DPB. But the point I will always come back to is that these are the exceptions, not the rule.

In general, people don’t fill out a WINZ form with the intention of screwing over the taxpayer. They go through the awful process of getting a benefit because they need it – because they’re newly a single parent, because they’re unwell, because they’ve lost their job or because they came out of school and just couldn’t find one. Making the few that abuse the system the public face of all beneficiaries is unjust, un-called for, and unrealistic. It needs to stop being the idea that people who have never been broke imagine whenever someone brings up the subject.

Never read comments on Stuff is the main NZ news website. It presents the mains news stories from all of the national newspapers and the bigger local ones as well. It has a comments section, and that’s always a mistake to read (but I do anyway). Here’s why it should all be ignored, this time from an essay about the inordinately strong focus on beneficiary fraud when tax fraud is so much more expensive to the state, and more worthwhile in terms of returns.

Would you not agree that in a large proportion of cases the issue stems from the beneficiary and the choices they have made in life which have lead them to their current outcome? (Not all but most). Politicians fix the issues whether they are left or right. I’m sick of hearing people blame the government. I also hate people thinking a benefit is an entitlement, it shouldn’t be. Recognise that the rest of the country is helping you out of a bad situation and do the best you can to get yourself out of being a beneficary [sic] and the tax payer will have no problem with you being on that “temporary” benefit.

Here we have that wonderful fallacy, that beneficiaries in general laze around and don’t try and get jobs while on the benefit. It’s just a handout to these people, or so the narrative goes. The Ministry itself, however, admits that three in four unemployment beneficiaries are off the dole within a year. Less than one percent are on it for more than ten years. There are not simply myriads of people opting out of the workforce to hang out on benefits.

Honestly, how many people would decide to live on $190/week just for the hell of it, or because they’re lazy. $190 is approximately far less than anyone can live on with any sort of quality of life. Minimum wage will get you more than $400 per week to live on, and while that’s still not a lot, it gets you far more than the benefit. It’s just not an attractive ‘lifestyle choice’

And of course, there’s a side helping of blaming the beneficiary’s ‘choices in life’ for their situation. Because being offered shitty choices in life is absolutely your own fault. Making bad calls is something that you deserve to be judged on. Blaming victims of chance for the way the cards fell is absolutely just.

To be clear, I know there are people that do decide to live on a benefit. Everyone’s got an anecdote of so-and-so’s distant relative’s son who is just a complete layabout and lives on his mother’s couch, buying junk food and video games with his benefit. There has to be some substance to some of these tales. I know that not all beneficiaries are in their situation due to chance, or bad luck. And I know they’re not all innocent bystanders – there are some that calculate their situation with great care. There are also some people who are just plain evil, and manipulative, and out to get whatever they can however they can. But I argue that these are not the majority.

Yes tax evasion is a crime but it only human nature to bash beneficiaries because us hard workers get frustrated seeing people getting paid for sitting on their butts, while tax evaders still at lest contribute somewhat.

Human nature to bash beneficiaries. Are you claiming that it’s just human to tread on the downtrodden, or to envy the poor their poverty? And that contributing something to the economy (which can be a bit questionable) makes tax evasion something worth condoning? Those are some pretty weak arguments. I would like to think that human nature would be better than that, at least when people realise how few people actually want to be in the position of needing welfare, and how little time is spent lazing around, especially on domestic purposes benefits. Now, the people we should really be bashing if we want to talk about laziness are super-annuitants. The don’t have any work obligations, don’t have to reapply every year, they have it sweet! No, we don’t do that because it’s blatantly unfair.

So why is beneficiary-bashing a national sport? They’re broke by definition. Their lifestyles suck. They raise their kids in poverty. Nothing about their lives is enviable, except perhaps that they do not have to do a nine-to-five. But that’s all people see – the ‘laziness’. The not contributing. Walk a mile in a beneficiary’s worn-out shoes, and maybe attitudes would change.

Stealing from the government via benefit fraud is far worse than paying less tax than you should. The latter is not stealing.

And this gem. I don’t think there’s anything I can add to this.

Waiting lists

Today I got a call giving me a follow-up appointment at Child Development Services, so that we can get the official report about the assessment my daughter had a couple of months ago. It’s now ten months since her referral, and it’s good to be getting near the end of this process.

The only reason we’re getting in to see the development team only a couple of months after the assessment is that there have been several cancellations by people ahead of us on the list. People going away for Christmas has been the deciding factor on whether we get to see them before the New Year. It’s a bit sad, really, but lucky.

My daughter also has hearing problems, of a not-yet-quantified severity. Initial tests say that she has something like a 30-50% hearing loss, but we’re waiting for proper testing. The chance of that happening before the end of January are slim.

The thing that has bothered me about the processes we’ve been going through this year – hearing assessment, grommet insertion and checkup, audiologist referral, child development assessment and follow-up – is the waiting in the dark. Not knowing how long you will sit on the ‘referred’ list. It’s not easy, waiting and waiting for an appointment.

Government regulations state that the waiting lists must be six months long at the absolute maximum, and there are penalties for hospitals who do not meet this target. So the shadow waiting list emerged. The list of those referred to the various hospital services who are not officially on a waiting list, so they don’t break the rules, but exist in a grey area, waiting to see a specialist. Once these gatekeepers have been passed, the surgical or therapeutic wait time is often quite short – a couple of months, give or take. But it’s getting past the gatekeepers that’s so hard. They control the therapeutic/surgical waiting list size, and they have to be rather careful about it, so the institution isn’t penalised.

Appointments are now schedules only about 6 weeks in advance (which is why I’m pretty sure we son’t see the audiologist until the end of January or later), whereas when I was younger they would cheerfully hand you an initial appointment for eight or nine months in the future. I don’t know if this also related to the six-month waiting list rule. It was easier, in a way, to know that yes, they have you pencilled in. Instead, you get a letter confirming that they’ve received your referral, and then dead air until you get your letter giving you your six weeks notice.

Maybe it’s just my personal preference, but I’d like to have some transparency in what is going on, and an honest look at what the waiting lists are really like. Artificially cutting them is not working – it’s just creating a pool of people waiting to get on the waiting list.

Asperger’s syndrome and ignorance

One of my favourite over-privileged wastes of space has managed to incite outrage once again (which is an utter surprise to absolutely no-one). Michael Laws, former mayor and current self-important ass, decided that it was time that people with Asperger’s had some mud slung at the from the privileged position of a newspaper article in addition to what they have to deal with from people every day. I’m sure they’re so very grateful.

He says that a young man with Asperger’s who was caught stealing light fittings in the wake of the Christchurch quake was lucky to get away with just a black eye. What? Well, Laws decided that “he has Asperger’s. Big deal!”. Even if we ignore the Asperger’s comment, what kind of justice does this man believe in? Beating a young man for stealing is much more despicable than the crime he’s charged with. Perpetuating violence does not solve crime – it adds to it.

When we stop ignoring the Aspergers comment, it gets worse. The man had a fascination with light fittings, and it the wake of the chaos of the quake, which was very unsettling for him, taking light fittings was his way of trying to normalise life again. That doesn’t excuse theft, but it’s a compelling explanation for it, and one that will be taken into account in any justice proceedings.

Asperger’s is, in fact, a big deal. It changes how you process stimuli, how you interact with the world, how you think. It’s not something you shrug off like a common cold. Treating it like it’s just a poor excuse is garbage. It’s the sort of thing that you expect, though, from a man with no direct experience, no empathy, no sympathy. And he is all of these. I worked somewhere once where we had reason to have a lot of contact with Mr Laws and his wife. They were legendary for their selfishness and lack of human kindness. Apparently when you’re a Laws, you’re above everyone else and should be treated as such. And apparently when you’re a Laws, you have the right to criticise someone that you have no understanding of.

Mr Laws then went on to be less than friendly with the mother of an Asperger’s child, accusing her of poor parenting leading to her son’s condition. After being given a chance to learn more about Asperger’s, coming out with this shows that he’s not just ignorant and needs to learn – he’s wilfully ignorant and needs to shut up.

Mr Laws is symptomatic of a wider theme in society, one that I’m not sure will change any time soon. The lack of understanding of anything not in our personal sphere on experience is bad enough, but the wilful ignorance, the possibility of learning rejects, that’s ugly. And denigrating those ‘others’ is cruel. Laws shows all of those, giving a shining example of some of the worst attitudes humanity can show to each other.

Interestingly, it seems that the Sunday Star-Times has pulled the original article, and the editor has come out and apologised for running the column. I hope that they more closely vet their columns in the future, to avoid embarrassment to themselves and insult to others.

Laws, of course, will take no lesson from this, except perhaps about the power of public outcry. He’s a dinosaur staggering around a world that’s trying to move toward acceptance and equality, and maybe it would be better if his public persona was allowed to collapse and die. He can live as a private citizen, but he needs to give up the public face that’s so outdated and nasty.