Category Archives: Benefits

Help is everywhere

Today an article came out about a coroner’s decision that was released during the week regarding the death of a fifteen-month-old girl named Emma-Lita Bourne. She died of a brain haemorrhage related to the pneumonia she had been suffering during the time leading up to her death. The coroner ruled that her death was partly due to the inaction of Housing New Zealand, the government agency that is responsible for the national social housing stocks. The house was cold and damp, and contributed to her illness, according to the coroner.

I then made the mistake of reading the comments on the article. Many of them were well-considered and thought out, but one stood out. It reads “this is pathetic journalism. Help is everywhere for those who need it.”

I call bullshit.

If there was help everywhere for those that need it, we would have no suffering in the country, yet that is blatantly untrue. Food banks would never have to turn people away, or if they did, there would be a service that took up the slack instantly. There would be no cold, damp, leaking housing stock, because anyone that found themselves in such a place would apply for help and it would be given. Is that our reality?

People who say things like that have no idea what poverty is like, or their experience of poverty is atypical to the point of being alien to your average poor person. The hopelessness and powerlessness of having no good choices, no lifelines, no avenues of escape are not in any way familiar to them, and they are pontificating from a place of comfort into a world they just don’t understand.

I find it shameful that there are people that misunderstand the reality of poverty in this country so thoroughly that they think such things. But then I think, how on earth would you educate such people. I think that if I had no experience of being broke (and I was never in desperate poverty, just student poverty) I would likely not understand what it was like. But then, I have education and empathy – maybe I would be less ridiculous than this creature.

The resources available to people in deep poverty are sparse and inadequate. Stating that help is everywhere is just straight bullshit, spouted from a place of privilege. A place where there is money to turn the heater on, and the roof doesn’t let the rain in. The world of the really poor just isn’t like that. It’s about being cold and hungry and never really having enough of anything.

A report put out by the Ministry of Social Development on Friday pointed out that 200,000 children are in situations like Emma-Lita’s. How many of them become so unwell they end up dying because of their living conditions? It’s shocking that such a thing happens in a country as wealthy as this, with a strong history of social support. What has happened to us that we have let our social safety net develop so many gaping holes?

We can do better by our people living in poverty. We can actually spend money that is allocated for Housing New Zealand maintenance on that maintenance (because our Housing Minister is proud to state that only 60% of the maintenance budget is currently being spent, and it has been like that for several years). We can raise benefit levels to a point where people can afford the power to heat their homes, or we can subsidise power. A heat pump is no good when you can’t afford to run it. We can pay people enough to put food on their tables, and we can feed the kids at school to take some of the strain off people’s budgets.

We can do better, but this current government will not, because they don’t understand grinding poverty. Even those that had to rely on social security to get by did so in an era when such things were properly funded, and you could live well enough on benefit dollars, in properly funded state houses that were relatively new. It’s not an experience at all parallel to the ruins of the welfare state we find ourselves in now.

Help isn’t everywhere. It’s hiding away, it’s hard to access, and it’s out of reach for many people. Middle and upper class New Zealand need to stop deluding themselves about this.

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

This is considered a basic right, something that New Zealand has signed its agreement to. We have the right to a decent standard of living, and the right to social security. So what’s going on with our government?

We have a right to adequate food – so why do we have to fight for food grants, and why are various  benefits not actually enough to feed their recipients on? Budgeting services across the country are sending their clients to food banks week after week because the clients have budgeted their money well and responsibly, and still there’s not enough to buy adequate food.

We have a right to adequate clothing – but there are kids all over the country who are being given socks, shoes, and jackets by KidsCan because their parents cannot afford these things.

We have the right to adequate housing, but our government refused to take up a bill proposing a warrant of fitness for rental homes so poor people in cheap accommodation are not living in places unfit for habitation. Our government is also selling off our stocks of social housing, ostensibly to social housing providers, but actually more likely into the hands of investors wanting to make a profit from them.

We have the right to adequate medical care, but our healthcare system is struggling under the weight of increasing need coupled with a static budget. Things that are nice to have are just off the list, and things that are utterly essential are pared back. Elective surgery lists are so long that by law most people are not officially on the list, because the list can only be six months long.

We have the right to necessary social services, but CYFS is so underfunded that it has had to cut back on necessary social welfare checks on foster children. The education budget is static, meaning that the education of our children is being slowly eroded, while teachers shudder under the weight of paperwork that they are forced to complete. Homeless shelters subsidised by the government are fully booked out, forced to deal with newly released prisoners and those fresh from mental health inpatient units, for which they are unequipped.

We have the right to security in case of lack of livelihood through circumstances beyond our control. Yet the government takes a punitive approach to beneficiaries, cutting benefits for minor sins, things that shouldn’t even be considered wrongdoing, like not applying for enough jobs in a week. Single parents are particularly victimised, with further restrictions on their parenting choices appearing with every new iteration of social development policy. The sick and disabled, distinctly named here as deserving of social security, are pushed toward work that they are in many cases not able to do effectively or safely, rather than being supported.

The current government is punitive, punishing people for being poor, being unemployed, being a solo parent, being ill. It’s not fair, and it’s directly against an international declaration that we have signed. Those things don’t really mean anything, it seems, unless we’re judging another nation for not following them.

Being young and unemployed

I read an article about being young and unemployed today, and it raised an issue that I don’t think is discussed enough in relation to unemployment – the effects of unemployment on developing mental illnesses.

Everyone knows that having mental illnesses puts you at higher risk of unemployment. It’s just logical – if you’re seriously unwell in any way then your risk of struggling to find or keep work is much higher. Mental illness has a lot of stigma attached to it, making it hard to get work, and the illnesses themselves make it hard to keep work at times.

So it’s not a great surprise that the mentally ill are somewhat overrepresented in the ranks of the unemployed. But how many perfectly healthy people found themselves on the dole, and became unwell because of it? There are anecdotes in the article of a couple of people that had that experience – of suffering depression and anxiety related to being unable to find work. I would hazard a guess that this is not an unusual experience, and that even the most mentally healthy individuals have periods of unwellness if they are unemployed for a protracted length of time.

What kind of provisions do we make for this? Oh, that’s right. None. Because unemployed people suffering mental illness are doubly derided by society. Not only are you lazy and incompetent, goes the narrative, but you’re also crazy. Stay away, kids!

It’s worse than just having the psychological struggles of the unemployed ignored, though. WINZ processes actively make people unwell. The struggle of trying to get your entitlements, the constant losing of paperwork and other little errors, the unending pressure to get a job and get off the dole (I’m trying, miss, but there aren’t any jobs!), all these things cause stress that can turn into illness. Being unwell already and having to jump through the WINZ medical exemption process is even worse, and no more mercy is shown than to the least co-operative of recalcitrant beneficiaries.

WINZ is a recipe for mental ill health. Unemployment is a potent ingredient all on its own. The melting pot of financial pressure and debt turn it all into hot mess of psychological distress. But support is offered only to the most unwell of people, leaving people easily treated to get worse and worse. They could go to their GP, of course, and be referred for counselling or given anti-depressants – except they chose their GP back when they had a job, or access to student services, and now they can’t afford to go. Tough luck, kid.

The situation for the unemployed actively seeking and not finding work is dire.The stress brings their mental health under pressure, and there’s little out there for them to get support or help from.

Increasing education to deal with unemployment

A commenter replied to one of my earlier posts that eat with the idea of upskilling the unemployed in order to make them more employable. He said

Creating more people with qualifications will not change the fact that there simply aren’t jobs.

And he’s completely right. Upskilling beneficiaries without increasing the number of skilled jobs available will only result in a very well-educated pool of beneficiaries, possibly with the debt that is incurred with any form of higher education adding to their troubles. What use is this?

In the end, we need more jobs in order to have less unemployment. It’s just maths. I don’t know how to increase job numbers – that’s something that economists understand, not Classical Studies graduates. But I do understand that we can’t employ people in jobs that don’t exist. It simply makes no sense. Politicians talk about education, about breaking the cycle of poverty, about reducing substance abuse and criminality and all these things, but if there aren’t jobs to walk into, then you can’t walk out of poverty.

Benefit addicts and elitism

I think the focus around throwing benefit money at people to do nothing (or to jump through increasingly ridiculous hoops for WINZ) is the real issue. Instead of investing in educating and upskilling those not working we create a benefit addicted underclass with an entitlement mentality. Pay people a benefit if they enrol at university/Polytechnics and base their benefit rates on their grade average.

So says one hapless Stuff commenter, on an article about the issue of underemployment. I do wonder sometimes if people actually listen to what they are saying sometimes.

A benefit addicted underclass with an entitlement mentality. Well, people keep telling me there are dole bludgers living it up on the taxpayer dime, never intending to work and living well despite it. I have to ask, though, where are these people? If they were as common as it’s thought, then the government would be making an example out of them, whether punitively as a warning or positively when they’re finally off the dole. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe there’s a huge class of people out there that are different from my romantic notion of beneficiary life. But it’s not my experience, and it’s not backed up anywhere by any statistics I’ve seen. More than three quarters of unemployment beneficiaries are on the dole for less than a year – that doesn’t stink of a benefit addicted underclass. Maybe it’s the sickness, invalid’s, and sole parent benefits that people hang around on . . . um. Yes. That’s what those benefits are there for. People who have needs that are not just ‘out of work’. Chronically ill people may need a benefit their whole lives, and I will not begrudge them one cent. Sole parents are doing something very difficult, and they should be supported by everyone around them, not threatened with losing their only source of income.

A benefit addicted underclass who all rely on not-quite-enough to get by on each week. Really. It’s just such an attractive lifestyle, I can see why so many people would freely choose it. Back in the real world, people are on benefits for many reasons, and they’re far too complex to be dealt with in the schemes of the Stuff commenter mentality.

“Pay people a benefit if they enrol at university/Polytechnics and base their benefit rates on their grade average.” Oh honey. It’s like you had half a good thought and then your brain ran out of go-juice. We do pay people a benefit to go to Uni/Polytech – it’s called the Student Allowance. We do that to make education more available to people, to help them upskill. But there are people who will never do well in formal education, and they deserve to live just as much as a Rhodes Scholar (who, incidentally, is just on a very fancy kind of benefit). Tertiary qualifications are out of reach for some people for many reasons, medical, educational, and personal. Basing benefit rates on participation in tertiary education is very much elitist. Basing people’s worth on their enrolment at a higher learning facility is a few shades of ridiculous.

Basing benefits on grade averages has got to be one of the dumber ideas I’ve seen recently. There is just so much wrong with it. People who are disadvantaged tend to not perform as well academically as people who grew up with fewer impediments. People who are on a benefit because they are unwell may find it harder to attain higher grades. People who have a serious life event come up not only have to worry about their grades – they also have to worry about their budget getting cut over it. Honestly, when did this sound like it would be a good idea?

This sort of thinking assumes that every beneficiary has about the same advantages in life as the thinker, and that the beneficiaries are in a bad position because they are making bad choices. That’s just not the way the world works, and so applying solutions that involve putting pressure on people to make ‘good choices’ doesn’t work. They don’t have the right base to make ‘good choices’ from.

A few more dollars in your pocket – in exchange for your right to parent

Yesterday’s Budget was . . . not as horrible as I thought it might be. My beloved Health sector didn’t get much more than this year, or at least not in the areas I’m passionate about, and neither did Education, but at least there were no cuts. The bit that everyone’s talking about, though, is welfare. There’s big news on that front.

The big news is a really bloody big deal. $25 per week more to each beneficiary – that’s more than a third of my food budget when I was on the student allowance, to feed a couple of kids in addition to myself. $25 would have been revolutionary, and it will be to the lives of some kids. There are catches (of course) that I don’t fully understand yet, but I’ll come back to them tomorrow when I’ve read some more learned opinions than my own. Still. $25. That’s something I never expected from this government. It says that yes, they are actually kind of attempting to sort of keep their child poverty promises. This won’t take effect until April next year, but it’s still a pretty big shard of hope for beneficiaries.

As well as extra money for beneficiaries, low-income families that already receive the In-Work Tax Credit will receive an extra $12.50 per week. It’s not a lot in absolute terms, but that’s 12 loaves of bread, or six litres of milk, or two and a half kilos of mandarins – a big difference when you’re living on not a lot. It would even stretch to a fish and chip dinner for the family every so often – a real treat for many kids.

So where’s the downside, the seamy underbelly of the child poverty-addressing budget? Well, parents on the Sole Parent Support will be obligated to work from when their child turns three (rather than when they turn five and start school), for a minimum of 20 hours per week. And here we land in the ‘poor people don’t have the right to parent’ territory.

Parenting is important, and it really is a full-time job. It’s not so much when the kids go off to school, but under-fives demand a lot of time and effort. The idea that poor parents should have to send their kids to daycare or preschool while they work, an obligation to be enshrined in law, is blatantly classist. We live in a society that was set up to protect families and children. We live in a society that says it values parenting. But we live in a society that has decided that it doesn’t value poor people’s parenting? There is already an obligation for Sole Parent Support recipients to ensure their child is in Early Childhood Education – why? Because we don’t trust poor people to raise their kids properly, to make the best decisions they can for them. It’s bullshit. We wouldn’t dare enforce work or any parenting practice on white, middle class women. Why are we doing it to poor women?

Our Prime Minister says that it’s fair to force poor parents to work, because “Tens of thousands of Kiwis do that every day, and they do that half the time after 14 weeks”. It’s true that many parents choose to return to the workforce after their paid parental leave is over, and that is right for their families. Others are forced to return because they haven’t the income to do otherwise. This essentially means that people without resources are forced to return to work whether it’s good for their family or not – a situation that Mr Key’s family would have no familiarity with, as his mother was allowed to stay on the benefit in a state house while she raised him, and his wife became a full-time mother to their children. Key is essentially taking away from our people the advantages that his family has enjoyed since they emigrated here. It is shameful.

Not only is the budget requiring parents on benefits to look for work when their child is three, they are also increasing the hours needed to count as part time from 15 to 20 hours per week. Where are these hours going to come from? We already have a huge pool of unemployed and underemployed people in this country. Until the people unencumbered with children, with the time and ability to work available to them are employed, why are we pressuring people with the rather important task of raising the next generation to work? And what employer is going to take a beneficiary with kids on as a part-timer if they can choose someone who might be available for extra hours at short notice, who won’t be called away in a hurry because their child is sick, who won’t have to take days off in order to care for their child? It may be illegal to discriminate in that way, but in the real world that’s the way it happens.

This budget carries some promise for many beneficiaries, and a huge penalty to others. As long as this government refuses to value parenting as an important job and one that even poor people are capable of doing well and should be allowed to do, it’s only going to get worse. It’s a couple of years to the next election, but I hope that next time around there will be a change to someone with a bit of a heart.

I know a lot of beneficiaries . . .

‘I know a lot of beneficiaries and they are all dead-beat shitheads who will never work’ – good for you. You’re generalising to a huge and diverse population. Three quarters of all unemployment beneficiaries will be off the benefit in under a year, and in the meantime every extra penny makes a difference in their kids’ lives.

Even if someone is on a benefit long-term, $25 per week makes a huge difference to their kids’ lives – because no, beneficiaries do not all waste every penny on booze, drugs, and gambling. They are human, and have the human range of vices, but also the human impulse to protect and provide for their kids. There are always exceptions, but they should be seen for what they are – exceptions.

There are middle-class parents who smoke and drink and gamble their money away, and a $25 per week pay rise will not benefit their kids at all – shall we say that they don’t deserve their raise? No, because that’s bullshit. We don’t do that to ‘respectable’ people, why should be do that to poor people?

There’s this idea that poor people are that way because of some moral failing. That’s just blatantly wrong. People are poor for a variety of reasons, and ‘because they’re a lazy sheathed’ is way down the list of causes. Coming from a poor background, or being Maori, or being disabled, are much more common reasons, and we can stop pretending that any of those things are moral failings. Poor people are not inherently scum, and treating them like they are makes you a despicable person.

The way to tackle poverty is to make sure poor people have enough to live on. It’s that easy. Poor people tend to be excellent budgeters, because otherwise they’d starve in the streets. They know how to get the most out of the worst. Give them some fucking dignity and let them live like whole people, rather than half-shunned lives.

The answer is not this or that intricate programme that someone dreams up – fruit and vegetable baskets to poor families do nothing to get the power bill paid. A meat hamper is pretty fucking useless if you don’t have any gas to cook it on. Insulation in the ceiling is no good when there is water seeping up through the floorboards.

Give. Poor people. Enough. Money. Stop judging them. Start trusting them with their own lives.

Scared stiff of WINZ

An article ran in Stuff yesterday discussing WINZ and beneficiaries. It spoke of the fear that beneficiaries feel about the benefit process and about WINZ, the dehumanisation and lack of privacy that people visiting WINZ experience, and the fact that benefits are not enough to live on. In response, the government minister, Anne Tolley, trumpeted the government’s achievement of reducing beneficiaries, specifically sole parents, quite dramatically.

People are scared of WINZ. They have the combination of great power over people’s lives, deliberately unhelpful and unfriendly policies, and a collection of case managers that can be very jaded and cynical. They just have too much to hold over desperately disadvantaged people, and the power dynamic is horrific. Listening to stories of beneficiaries and their interactions with the system is uniformly heartbreaking, and anyone who knows a few poor people knows that there are some that are not getting their entitlements because they don’t have the skill or the strength to beat the system’s discrimination, or because they just can’t fight any more. Others will not be getting their entitlements because they’re just too afraid of or beaten down by the system to ask. It’s rare for someone to say that they’re happy with WINZ assistance and processes.

One of the things raised in the article was the lack of toilets available in WINZ offices. How degrading is it to either not bother with bathrooms because you don’t think your clients are worthy of such services, or because you don’t think you can trust them with such facilities. Which is it, WINZ? Does it matter? Both options are pretty bad. Are there others I have missed? All the arguments I can think of come down to money (they’re not worth it), laziness (we don’t want to deal with it), or prejudice (they’ll just make a mess of it). It’s garbage, no matter which excuse they might use. It should be noted that the minister did not actually offer an excuse in the article. Maybe she realises how bad any reasoning would sound.

Another issue touched on in the article was the lack of privacy in the WINZ offices. It’s a single big open-plan room, with a couple of mid-sized meeting rooms to run courses in. Not a scrap of privacy, you can hear what people are saying at the next table with ease, and anyone going through tough times can look forward to airing their pain to a room full of others, any tears on display. I do not see a good reason for such a setup – it may make security easier, it may mean that more desks can be fitted into a smaller space, but what it takes away from the client shouldn’t be worth those small benefits, benefits that are to the department, not those who use it.

People dealing with WINZ are treated very poorly. With the excuses of cost-cutting and playing off people’s prejudices, the department gets away with treating people like they’re on a factory line, processing them with no regard to their emotional or physical needs, nor much reference to what they are entitled to. There is always someone ready to come out and say ‘they’re just dole bludgers, they don’t deserve any better’ – there were a few that made comment on the Stuff article – and to them I say ‘they’re human beings, and they deserve the same respect as your average Joe, or for that matter the same respect as your average billionaire or royal’. Humanity doesn’t come in different grades depending on how much money they have. People are people and they all deserve the right to respect, to dignity, to a place to pee.

Poverty keeps kids home from school

The Rotorua Daily Post ran an article yesterday about the impact of poverty on poor kids. Some of what it says is just heartbreaking. One principal says

Parents who don’t have suitable food for their child’s lunch have been known to keep them at home so poverty does create a real barrier between children and their education.

These kids are undernourished in body and in mind, and it’s the shitty way we address both beneficiaries and the working poor that puts them there. It’s just awful that in a country with as much wealth as ours, we actually have kids in this situation. The government promises over and over again to address child poverty, while leaving the minimum wage too low for a family to live on, and setting benefit rates even lower. Our approach to poor people is punitive, particularly those with children. Being poor is a character flaw in the model we use, because good people get an education and a good job. It’s only people who don’t bother to get a qualification, who don’t try hard enough, or who don’t really need the work (teenagers, for example) who get minimum wage jobs. As for beneficiaries? Well! people like that are just lazy! and they shouldn’t have kids, even more than minimum wage workers. It’s just irresponsible to procreate if you’re not financially secure enough to raise them.

These attitudes are the kind of prejudice that leaves kids hungry, cold, and without much hope of things getting better. Kids that are not getting to school because they’re too poor, who are getting to school but going hungry and unable to concentrate, who are chronically unwell from the diseases of poverty, are not going to learn the way rich kids are. They’re going to struggle, and in all likelihood they are going to perpetuate the cycle of poverty. It’s called a cycle for a reason – it just keeps going around and around and it’s so hard to break out of.

Many of these children – 52% of decile one students, according to the Ministry of Education statistics – are living in overcrowded homes, where their is little privacy, little space, and more chance for the spread of illness. Many of these homes are poorly insulated, and in the winter are damp and cold. Sickness is more common in the homes of the poor, and the government needs to take some responsibility for that. Phasing out the insulation subsidy for rental properties and refusing to pass the rental warrant of fitness has condemned many to sub-stander housing. Sure, it makes things cheaper for landlords, who are part of the current government’s core constituency, but it’s at the expense of the poor and vulnerable.

One of the more shocking parts of the article is the proposal by one of the principals interviewed to build a respite house for children on school grounds for when their home life became “a little chaotic”. Is this idea restricted to one low-decile principal because he’s more enterprising than most? Is it a low-decile problem, or is it more widespread but only talked about because this is a low-decile school and reality hits harder there?

I can think of a few things that can go on for a kid that might make respite a good option. Parental breakups, illness, a special needs sibling, all these things are fairly normal and common enough that there is a legitimate need for respite care for kids. What are people going to think when ‘a little chaotic’ comes up? Abuse, neglect, all the terrible things that happen to poor kids. It’s a little tale of prejudice all on its own – poor kids are prone to bad parenting, and that just doesn’t happen in well-off families. I tell you, it does. It’s just not seen or acted upon.

Poverty does awful things to kids, and as a society we are responsible for a lot of that. We can, of course, do better. Will we? Well, maybe not.

Less about poverty, more about people

On Monday the NZ Herald ran a piece about Grant Robertson, the new Labour finance spokesman. In it, he said something I found interesting. He was talking about wanting to ‘humanise’ Labour’s economic policy.

That will mean less talk about poverty and the current account deficit, important as they are, and more talk about people and work.

Labour has always been the worker’s party, and focusing on work makes sense. It appeals to the historic working-class voter base that may not have turned out at last election, and those that didn’t vote in the last election could well be the key to winning the next one. So talking about work, about hours and pay and working conditions, is a solid strategy.

What makes less sense to me is partially or wholly discarding the narrative of Labour as champions of the poor. Those on benefits are another group that often doesn’t turn out for elections, and appealing to them would seem to me to be a useful strategy. “We are not going to not talk about poverty, because we have to”, he says, giving the impression that it’s only going to be talked about because they have no other choice. Is the suggestion that if it wasn’t for that pesky expectation that Labour cares about the poor, they would be dropped from economic policy altogether?

Poverty is about people. People that deserve consideration, whether they’re working poor or beneficiaries. Economic policy has to address poverty in order to have any credibility as a comprehensive strategy. Saying that it’s going to be ‘more about people and work’ is erasing the disadvantaged, something that I thought Labour was better about not doing. Better, perhaps, but evidently not great.

Why is it that when political parties want to look credible, the first thing they do is cut their social justice policies? Why is there this perception that serious politicking requires you to be hard on poor people? It’s perfectly acceptable to be committed to a fair deal for all and also to be a real contender in politics.