The reality of Poverty under the National Government

By   /   September 25, 2013  /   21 Comments

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After over a decade of being a workers rights advocate as a union organiser nothing could have prepared me for the extent of hopelessness, desperation and frustration that accompanied being an advocate for beneficiaries for one day.

The first was this young guy who had no income whatsoever. He had been told by his work and income case manager he wasn’t entitled to the JobSeeker benefit because he couldn’t produce a birth certificate even though he had a drivers licence ID. It turned out that case manager wasn’t telling the truth and this guy had been sleeping on friends couches and eating out of bins for no reason. For 10 months.

After over a decade of being a workers rights advocate as a union organiser nothing could have prepared me for the extent of hopelessness, desperation and frustration that accompanied being an advocate for beneficiaries for one day. I was one of the Auckland Against Against Poverty advocates a couple of weeks ago at their Impact welfare advocacy at New Lynn work and income.

In the waiting room, far from the ‘entitled beneficiary’ stereotype that mainstream media foists on us, I saw hardworking families trying to juggle impossible situations. Fathers made redundant from manufacturing jobs, teenage victims of the 90 day dismissal period , public servants made redundant by the government, brothers who were five minutes late to a work and income workshop and lost 3 weeks of their benefit because of it. Grandmothers getting work- tested when they are caring for grandkids full time because their parents are working two or three temp jobs to make ends meet.

When we sat in front of a case manager their eyes would look down and they would shuffle nervously on their seat. Waiting to be denied again. But pleading anyway because they have literally nothing to lose.

The case manager scrutinises the $200 that person had spent the previous week. $160 on rent – yes but what about the $40? $35 on electricity – yes but what about the $5? The humiliation of having to justify every last cent. Now please can we have the food grant?

The case manager pulls a face and types slowly , every second passes like a minute as we wait for the verdict. I was there as an advocate, a word that evokes strength and efficacy, but I felt like pleading too. The odds were stacked up against us. The welfare legislation is vague and confusing, after constantly being cut and recreated at the whim of whatever welfare minister is in power. I wondered what was our recourse if a grant was refused. Pursuing a review was possible but these are mainly run internally and it was hard to feel confidence in this process.

What could deliver justice and a fair outcome here? Failure today meant no food for the week, there was no time to lose.

Every day of my life is filled with conflict, as the life of a union organiser often is, as is inevitable working with vulnerable people against those in positions of power.

But in this conflict we are backed up by some fairly firm employment rights legislation, industrial power (the ability of workers – limited as it may be- to withdraw their labour), resource and ultimately, where called upon, a union movement.

Its no longer them, the unemployed and us, the employed – the chosen ones. With the changes this government has in store for working people I’m left feeling if we don’t act now many of us will face the same fate. Endlessly waiting in rooms with hungry children for a chance to see a case manager ,pleading politely for a food voucher to survive the week.

Auckland Action Against Poverty is doing an incredible job with what resources they have , but what more can we be doing in this country to build a movement of support and empowerment for the unemployed?

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21 Comments

  1. Stasia Polaczuk says:

    Tali thank you for mentioning the 90 day dismissal period. My friend had this clause unceremoniously dumped on his life and now has a 13 week stand down period with Winz. This means he has no guaranteed income for the next 3 months. Its heartbreaking. In reality he should be taking a personal grievance against his employer but the 90 day clause eliminates this option. It is sooo unfair.

  2. risildowgtn says:

    It is time for WINZto be disbanded.
    It is a left over toxic reminder of Rankin days…..

    Her of the Conservative Partay.. What a joke
    That thing has no morals whatsoever…..

    WINZ need to be separated back into in Department Of Labour that focuses on jobs and the benefit side needs to be a hell of alot more humane in their dealings with clients…..

    Their workers focus on WHAT they can keep from you not what they can do FOR you…..

  3. Groucho Marxist says:

    After the collapse of my family business I have had some experience with WINZ.
    One of the biggest frustrations is the variation in policy interpretation.
    The 0800 person will tell you one thing and the branch will tell you another. Then someone else at the branch will tell you something else again.
    My son had started a job at 5 hours per week and had extended his hours to a point where he was receiving just $1.74 of the benefit. The hours were still variable and staying registered was an essential backup at the 21 hour break-even point.

    He was told he had to attend a CV writing seminar so that he would be able to apply for a fulltime job.
    Explaining that taking a day off work to travel a 160km round trip for the seminar would not only look bad at his job but also cost him a day’s wages, fuel, and meant that the department had to pay him more that week because of his reduction in hours was fruitless.

    WINZ suggestion was that they cancel his registration.
    After talking to my son I rang 0800 as his advocate to cancel and had to spend about 25 minutes trying to persuade them to take him off the register.

    The inefficiency and tight minded attitudes of WINZ make life a misery for anyone unfortunate enough to have lost their job during this recession that the National government pretends does not exist.
    What a mean-spirited state this country has become.

  4. any ideas fdor a strategic vote like this for Kapiti lots of retoric but little substance
    Kapiti is becoming a work force of supermarket and fast food workers homehelpers for the rich, sick, and elderly and the odd roadworker job.
    Wellington Council recently gave thecontrct to another out of town that madeabout 200 or so people out of work and moved in their own workers.
    Kapiti Contracts have gone to Downers who employ more out of town workers
    Please vote it is a Responsibility but vote sensibly if we want our communities to thrive then we must vote

  5. Great article on what will hopefully come to be seen as our ‘National’ disgrace! This particularly stood out:

    “The welfare legislation is vague and confusing, after constantly being cut and recreated at the whim of whatever welfare minister is in power. I wondered what was our recourse if a grant was refused. Pursuing a review was possible but these are mainly run internally and it was hard to feel confidence in this process.”

    Our left parties should be putting their heads together and redesigning WINZ from the ground up. Other comments here seem to reinforce this sense that half the people you speak with contradict the others, and both seem to have information telling them they are right, only for it to turn out they are both wrong. That’s a sure sign of a systems failure brought about by years of ad hoc changes to an aging system.

  6. Malcolm says:

    It would be great if the unemployed and beneficiaries were better integrated into the union/labour movement. We’ve seen some relatively good press releases from the CTU on beneficiaries issues/interests but not much practical action, as far as I know – I could be wrong. Does the CTU have someone employed to organise in this area?

  7. Peter says:

    Not sure that Nelson Mandela is the best person to be quoting on poverty. His stewardship of South Africa ensured that decades of rampant economic apartheid still exist today. While political apartheid may have been removed serious economic changes were deliberately resisted by the ANC leadership during Mandela’s presidency and are still resisted to this day.
    Mandela’s legacy in terms of lifting his people from poverty is not impressive and the attributed quote somewhat ironic given the living standards of most South Africans.

    • Ovicula says:

      There is nothing wrong with Mandela’s quote. It is quite accurate. That he and the ANC didn’t manage to do away with poverty in South Africa is another story entirely.

    • Gosman says:

      The living standards of the majority of South Africans is still vastly greater than that of people in most nations in sub Saharan Africa.

  8. Keri says:

    Hi there,

    Reviewing a decision is only partially internal process which I am writing down here in case there is someone else out there who can benefit:

    1. Review is lodged by client or advocate in writing. They of course have a specific form for this.
    2. An “internal” review is completed by a senior staff member and the decision can be overturned or upheld at this point. SPECIAL NOTE, in the case of an emergency hardship application like the food grant above you should be able to lodge an immediate review while you are still in the office and they can overturn it that same day – expect delays while you wait.
    3. If the decision is upheld the review proceeds to a Benefit Review Committee or BRC. This will consist of two MSD staff and one community rep. You get to argue your case. Helpful hints at this point are to show up in person (you are much more likely to win than if you argue on the papers) and to present an argument from legislation and solid case law rather than emotive pleading because at this point you are part of a legislative process rather than an administrative one.

    Whatever you do ensure that your argument is well supported with documentation. You are unlikely to succeed if you forget this, especially with applications for disability costs. For best results speak to an experienced benefit rights advocate so they can help you navigate that confusing legislation (see below for some contact details).
    4. If you are still unhappy with the result your review can be escalated to a Medical Appeals Board (MAB) which consists of three panel members, all with medical qualifications but still part of judicial process. MAB’s only hear applications for Child Disability Allowance, Supported Living Payment or Jobseeker Support with the lowered work testing criteria for those who are sick. If you are reviewing any other decision such as a Disability Allowance you may appeal to the Social Securities Appeal Authority (SSAA). Only some benefit rights advocates can still support you at this level.

    If you are having issues with Work and Income the Beneficiary Education and Advisory Service Incorporated (commonly known around the community as “benefit rights”) can assist and have many years of experience in this area.

    They are Wellington based but also help people outside of this area due to a shortage of advocates in some centers. Work and Income has a list of advocates on their site or you can also contact your local CAB who may be able to assist.

    Benefit Rights Service
    (Beneficiary Education Advisory Service Inc)
    Level 2 Community House
    84 Willis St
    Wellington Central
    Phone: 04 210 2012

    • Janet Robin says:

      Thanks for that information. It’s very helpful but I think the process is slightly different . My understanding is as follows: after the internal review; it will either go to the Benefit Review Committee or the Medical Appeals Board, depending on whether it relates to a medical issue or not. If an appeal fails at the Benefit Review Committee it can go on to the Social Security Appeals Authority. If it fails at the Medical Appeals Board, it needs to go on to the High Court.

  9. Robyn says:

    Good work Tali!

  10. C. H. says:

    Division between ordinary working people is probably the biggest problem facing the left in NZ today. The Tories make hay by pitting the unemployed against the employed; low-waged workers against better-paid ones; farmers against urban workers. The truth is we’re all one the same side – seeing our pay packets shrink and jobs disappear offshore as the millionaires get even richer.

    You don’t have to be too smart to understand the 99%-1% equation. They know damn well once we unite, get the right game plan and push for change, their days are numbered.

    • Marc says:

      C.H.: I agree, but I see the BIGGEST problem are not the suppressors, and the various groups, it is the individual members of the various groups of workers, of unemployed, of beneficiaries and otherwise disadvantaged, that do not get on with each other.

      And my assessment is without any doubt, the biggest “problem” is the “professional” and not so professional MIDDLE CLASS!!!

      The most of them frown on beneficiaries even more than the 1 per cent, who really have little to lose. They can leisurely play off the various social groups against each other and totally rely on the success of this functioning.

      I have experienced with my own skin, body, life and soul, the “middle class” in NZ is the most dishonest, hypocritical and self serving lot out there, and they do NOT give a damned shit about beneficiaries, and that is the main problem here, and sadly nobody dares to say it, as it the very inconvenient truth!

      “Do not come near me, you unwashed”, is the approach, and the segregation that is evident in the school system, with differing decile schools in differing income areas, that tells us all of it. The “middle class” are the same as the old style “Christian” hypocrites, who throw a few dimes or less into the donation box at church, and thus pay off their bad conscience. They do the same with the taxes, but they are not doing it happily, and the fact that the Nats are still so strong proves it.

      A real major change is needed, to re-inform the wider public that only common effort and sharing will save the country. That requires massive investment in quality public broadcasting, to INFORM, educate and counteract the divisive private, corporate media.

      So there you go, Mr Cunliffe, you have your work cut out. Sadly, I cannot see him and Labour deliver enough on this.

  11. Mike S says:

    Thankfully I am working full time at the moment. (Still struggling to pay the bills though!).

    But I hate (strong word I know) WINZ and the staff at the Highland Park branch in particular. I had numerous heated ‘discussions’ with them to the point I was asked to leave the premises on two occasions. (One of which the joke of a security guard started to grab hold of me to take me out, but I quickly made him understand the error of his ways).

    They really are a bunch of mean spirited, uncaring people. As mentioned in a post above, it helps if you read up on the law. One of my run ins was when a real bitch of a case manager wouldn’t approve my accommodation supplement request. I was flatting with one other person at the time and my rent was $200 per week. Without the supplement my benefit was $195 per week. Her reason was that because I was the leaseholder, the rent money my flatmate gave me each week was classed as income. So according to her, on top of my $195 a week, I also received $200 a week additional income! In her opinion, because I received $200 from him, regardless that it went straight into the landlords account, it was income. I asked her if I should notify IRD and pay income tax on it! Eventually after 2 more appointments, I made her back down by taking in the relevant paragraphs from the relevant statutes. She acted surprised but was definitely acting. She knew exactly what she was doing. I wonder how many other people she has cheated out of an accommodation supplement this way.

    Another time I spent 3 weeks homeless on a mates couch because they would only lend me half the bond money I needed for a flat. I had a letter from the real estate agent, etc and I tried desperately to point out that I had to pay the money back to them weekly out of my benefit anyway so really why would they lend me half but not all, knowing this would mean I would be homeless. Their argument was that I should find a cheaper place. I pointed out that $300 a week for a 2 bedroom (my share $150) was pretty cheap for Auckland but they wouldn’t budge.

    Like a previous poster, They tried to put me on a 14 week cv writing course, threatening to cut my benefit completely if I refused. They couldn’t seem to give a reply to my question as to whether there was something wrong with the cv of mine they had on file! I tried telling them that I wanted a job, not a ridiculous waste of time 14 week cv writing course. Anyway, I turned up to the introductory meeting for the course where the two ladies running it went over what was involved (included 4 hours a day physical cold calling on businesses). At the end they said if anyone thinks the course isn’t for them, let us know now as there’s no point in doing it if it’s not suitable. I immediately put my hand up and said that I was happy to do the course if I had to, but felt it wouldn’t offer me any skills I didn’t already have. They took my name off the course. My case manager at my next winz appointment said I’d refused the course and my benefit would be cut in half. I was livid and in the end I had to get one of the course presenters to confirm that I had said I was happy to do the course if I had to to get a benefit and I hadn’t refused to do it.

    They once sent me to an interview at a rest home which I was led to believe was a fulltime role as a gardener / groundsman. During the interview, the Manager there told me it was part time 20 hours a week night shift and was cleaning the communal areas, toilets, etc. I told him I was sorry but I thought winz was wasting his time as I was looking for a full time role, as a gardener / groundsman and I wasn’t able to work night shifts. He ended the interview immediately and said to me that he was pissed at winz as I was one of many who had turned up with vastly differing expectations as to what the job was. They tried to put down a job offer refusal on my file for that one!

    There’s heaps more examples I have of run ins with those pricks but I’m taking up too much space. Thanks heaps to all those who are acting as advocates and ensuring people aren’t getting walked on by winz. I didn’t know about advocates or I would have definitely found someone to help me, even if only to stop me losing my temper at winz staff!

    Grrrrr! (breathe Mike)

    • Marc says:

      Mike, this is DISGUSTING! Nevertheless, flatting or boarding with people are not the same, so when you flat with persons, then WINZ tend to put all the incomes of all renters together and divvy it up, to get your average “accommodation costs”. They may have done that with you. So whatever your flatmate pays you is partly considered to be income. It is your challenge and your responsibility to prove the total rent and outgoings, and who pays what.

      I suggest that if you hold a lease, to not “flat”, but to “board”. If you let a room to a boarder the rules are a bit different. You are under law, and even according to IRD, MSD and WINZ, allowed up to 2 boarders to share your accommodation, and as long as it is below a limit (for total rental and other costs, which is usually just over $ 200 per week), they will not deduct it off your benefit.

      In some cases they may look at it more closely, and say, what “gain” there may have been in the board received. So you can argue the utility and other costs, perhaps even supplementary supplies of cleaning utensils, toilet paper, cleaning you do and more, to say – hey, it costs me so much, so I gain little or next to nothing.

      The reason the government has not cracked down on tightening the boarding earning options is simply, that many Nat members, voters and supporters themselves finance their expensive homes by having boarders, ideally foreign students, who do not know the law, who are “easy”, and thus help them pay off their mortgages and so forth.

      But the boarding rules apply to home owners and renters the same. I suggest you will in future make “boarding agreements” rather than flatting agreements, as it will leave you better off. Also if a flattie is not working out, it can be difficult to justify a suggestion to move out, but with a boarder, the 2 week arrangement or notice is standard practice and more easily enforced.

      It is sad having to suggest this, but the law leaves some of us little opportunities.

  12. Marc says:

    This afternoon, speaking to a young man, who lives on a benefit, I learned immensely shocking things. He even said to me, being a born and bred Kiwi, how he HATED his country, and had NO faith in it!

    He had been on 90 days trial, tried one or more jobs, but they did not work out for him, for quite understandable reasons, as he told me, one being discrimination. I am not talking of a Maori or Pacifica friend here, no he is Euro Kiwi, but he was primarily discrimiated against for being over qualified, assertive and smart. Indeed it was a migrant employer, who otherwise only employs his/her own ethnic persons, who sacked him on the first day in one job.

    Also did he complain about age discrimination, being under 20 something. We discussed the actual age discrimination that MSD and WINZ apply, where you are not treated as an adult, until you are 21 or even 24 years old! This is to do with the way some benefit rates are paid! Indeed, and I have seen and read it, WINZ do not consider you to be an “adult”, until you are 21 years old or even older (to qualify for an adult rate of a benefit!). I thought that people were mature, valid and old enough at age 18, to vote, to do this and the other. But not so at MSD and WINZ, and they force people to stay home and impose on mum and dad for extra years.

    We talked about the social discrimination going on, that treats benefit parents differently to all else, we talked about the new “approach” of forcing sick and disabled into work, without safeguards and sufficient support, and by this basically further marginalising the unfortunate, rather than support and help them. I have heard not only of people with hernias forced to look for work, even some with serious mental illness and brain damage after accidents!

    Most do NOT know what their rights and entitlements are, they do not get informed properly by WINZ staff, and it is CRIMINAL!

    So I hear about many sleeping over at friends’ places or relatives’ places for many months, not being able to pay for basics, being treated as failures, non compliant troublemakers, as dodgers, bludgers and worse.

    Is this the “empowering” approach that Paula Beneshit has promised us! She is EVIL, that woman, she is an arrogant traitor to the people who are where she used to be. She should feel bloody ASHAMED of herself, and have many, endless, sleepless nights, that is my say on this! SHAME on you Paula, shame also on John Key and the whole rotten, treacherous government we have, it is time you get sent off!!!

    • Ptera says:

      It is the same with student loans. My wife and I have a few kids and when our eldest applied for student allowance he was informed we earned “too much” and discovered that this applied until he was 24 (conveniently through study by then). A friend of his was the son of wealthy orchard and multiple-property owners who could hide their wealth in companies and trusts. He got EVERYTHING he applied for. Welcome to NZ.

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