Tag Archives: WINZ

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.

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.

Refusing offers of suitable work

Part of the most recent round of welfare reforms included increasing penalties for not taking up suitable work that is offered. I see the reasoning behind this, but what WINZ considers ‘suitable’ work needs some serious looking in to.

What is deemed ‘suitable’ can be anything but. Sure, it might be something that it is within the realms of possibility, but sometimes it is in a location not accessible without a car (which many beneficiaries do not own) or is at a time which isn’t possible (beneficiaries do have the right to other commitments) or it might be a job which requires physical capabilities that the beneficiary simply does not have.

All these things should mean that the work is just deemed unsuitable and the job search goes on. But that’s all up to the whims of the case manager, who may be a lovely person, or may be jaded and cynical and condemn you as a lazy so-and-so who’s just trying to get out of work.It’s such a subjective judgement, and even if there are criteria in place for these things to be judged against, it still all depends on the attitude of the one doing the applying of said criteria. “I’m looking after my sister’s kids so she can go to work’ can be a reason why you can’t work out-of-school hours, or it can be just an excuse, depending on the eyes you’re looking through.

There is also a problem with the definition of ‘suitable work’. A laid-off engineer is best serving himself and the people around him if he looks for engineering and related jobs, but there’s a good chance that the work coming up on the WINZ radar is hopeless, dead-end jobs like supermarket work or unskilled factory work. Forcing people with strong skill sets into crap jobs isn’t helping them much. Maybe the you’re best positioned to get a better job if you already have a job, but when the job you have doesn’t allow time off for interviews, as some (quite illegally, I believe) don’t, then you’re stuck in a dead end that you can’t quit without lining up for a thirteen-week benefit stand down as a reward for leaving employment ‘voluntarily’.

I don’t know what the answer to this is. There’s no way to make people see beneficiaries through sympathetic eyes, even if it’s their job to. But it’s not WINZ employees’ job to be sympathetic. Their task is to get as many people as possible off the dole as fast as possible. This just isn’t compatible with treating beneficiaries humanely. The few that are merciful are not working within their job descriptions. Sure, the department may say that they’re there to help people, but the words that echo throughout their documentation are ‘work-focused’. Not people-focused.

So things look bad for beneficiaries in regard to their work obligations. They can only hope for a nice case manager and a good job offer to come up quickly

What works and what doesn’t

There’s an excellent article written recently about working, welfare, and mental health that’s really rather worth looking at. I don’t agree completely with it, but it makes some very good points about wellness and ability to work, and the results of both good and bad jobs. What interests me, however, is the very last line.

The final paragraph is a statement from the Director of Welfare Reform at WINZ. She informs us that there have been changes to the way WINZ deals with the mentally ill (but doesn’t hint at what these changes might be, beyond the obvious renaming of sick people from ‘ill’ to ‘seeking work’). She talks about individualised support, overcoming barriers, and other great buzzwords. Finally, she says

If you need help, come and talk to us.

I choked on my tea. Come and talk to us? That’s the last thing that anyone wants to do. Talk to people that are often not exactly lovely to the people they work with. Talk to people who are stuck within a shitty system of problematic policies. Talk to people who invariably have no idea how mental illness impacts a life. Talk to people who are paid to see you as a loafer who just needs to get up and get a job and get off the benefit, to stop being a drag on society.

The experience of going to WINZ is demeaning and dehumanising. Your personal circumstances, your personal banking details, everything is fair game to your case manager and they aren’t always above making you feel like a lesser human being because of it.

I’ve never personally experienced the seminars ‘offered to’ (forced on) Jobseekers. When mental health needs conflict with the ability to attend compulsory seminars, what then? Some case managers will work with you. Some will cut your benefit with nothing but an official letter. If you’re too unwell to attend your seminar, are you going to be able to come and see them?

Being classed as a Jobseeker means that people with mental illnesses have an expectation laid on them to go out and get a job. That’s fine for people that are doing pretty well, who will be helped by a good job that can help them build a sense of normality and even of pride in themselves, as happened to the young man in the article. For people on the worse side of the mental health existence, pressure to get a job when you’re flatly incapable just makes things worse. A person with badly- or un-controlled schizophrenia complete with delusions and hallucinations is not ready for employment, and they definitely aren’t in a position where coming in and seeing WINZ staff is even vaguely a good idea.

Someone with severe depression is going to struggle to go and see WINZ. Hell, they often struggle to get out of bed. And if they manage to come and see WINZ, what then? Who there has any idea about how debilitating depression can be? The awareness programmes that have run in the past ten years or more don’t show anything like how bad it can get. It’s all just glossed over, and in a way it makes it worse, because Joe Case Manager has this idea that it’s a problem, but it goes away, and it can be worked through. So Joe Case Manager has no sympathy and a list of jobs to apply for.

Mental health is not catered for in the WINZ system, no matter what they say. There’s no true understanding of what their clients are experiencing at any level – why would mental health be treated with any more understanding than the plight of a pregnant newly-single mother? Come and talk to us? Yeah, right.