Shortly after graduating from University, I joined the rank and file of the over educated and underemployed, and shuffled into my local WINZ office to sign up for the dole. Being peered down at by reception staff, whose greatest achievement was making it from my side of the desk to theirs, was as welcoming as the interminable Work 4 U seminar was patronising. My case manager treating me like garbage until I mentioned I had a University degree (things got decidedly easier from there) while young Maori kids were publicly humiliated in the open plan environment was my crash course in Checking My Privilege. I was a strong-willed, outspoken individual who knew and could articulate my rights and responsibilities but that environment sapped all of it out me. Seeing the fear in the eyes of those younger and more vulnerable than me made my heart ache.
This, I can safely say, was the most dehumanising experience of my life, and one I have been fortunate not to have to repeat since. I spent a brief period of time on a sickness benefit (not by choice, would you believe!) and the best thing it came with was breathing room. During my lowest period, had I been threatened with losing that support for not taking a job I was physically incapable of doing, I would have gone insane. They gave me the space to get my life together, and find work, without the anxiety of wondering how I could afford to eat or pay rent in the meantime. I got a part time job, moved into full time work, and have been gainfully employed ever since. I am the functioning member of society I am today because there was help for me when I most needed it. This isn’t welfare support being cut off, it’s life support.
Others will be able to better contextualise the politics, the economics and the social justice forces at play here. All I am capable of doing is expressing my thanks for the help I was given, and my rage that the same level of support won’t be afforded to me next time I need it. We need to provide counter-narratives to the intergenerational, million-dollar-house-dwelling, pothead lifestyle dole bludgers our news media thrive on. Human beings who are openly referred to in daily newspaper headlines as being culled (culled!!) like out of control vermin.
You can call it death by a thousand cuts, or another fine example of the boiling frog, but there’s no time for knowing metaphors when you have no money, a pile of bills to pay, and a state that no longer cares whether you live or die. We have a Government who see living is an aspirational goal and all we need is the threat of death to spur us into action. Our Gambler-In-Chief has gone all in on the Fight or Flight Response as a plan to curb unemployment. Kicking people off the dole is a job creation strategy in that our measurement of unemployment is based on those receiving benefits rather than those collecting incomes. Our great egalitarian myth making has taught us that we live in a binary where New Zealanders that aren’t at school are either working or on welfare. The reality is, there is a gulf between these two lands, and Paula Bennett has just given them a good old boot further apart.
Tax cuts for our wealthiest citizens, the right to fire workers for no reason, the lowering of the minimum wage, the continued erosion of workers’ rights. The more money freed up at the top of the financial food chain, the bigger the crumbs that fall to the hungry at the bottom. Either Our Dear Leaders are blind to the fact that supply side economics is a massive con, or they are fully aware and fuel it anyway. Whether you’re pissing on the poor on purpose or they just happen to get in the way, the result is still the same.