Black and white or 50 shades of grey?

By   /   August 14, 2017  /   35 Comments

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In 1994 CPAG was formed in response to the truly appalling changes Ruth Richardson rammed through in the early 1990s that saw rates of child poverty soar along with rates of 3rd world child diseases. Do people really understand that a sole parent’s benefit was cut below the poverty line but if they tried to earn extra money, they lost most of it?

A creeping paralysis set in after my first angry outburst “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”.  

The human experience is hugely challenging for us all no matter how well–off in material terms we may be. It can be messy, heart-breaking, draining and painful yet often joyous and uplifting. And it is a long journey. Life events are not black or white, right or wrong, bad or good, worthy or unworthy, deserving or undeserving.

A letter in the NZ Herald this week asserts: “just as you cant be a little bit pregnant, you cant be a little bit dishonest”.  Are there no shades of grey in the minds of the morally upright?

I was on my way to a meeting one morning last week when I got a message to say that my 9am meeting was cancelled because my friend was sick. It pulled me up with a start as I was on my way to a different meeting. I hadn’t looked at my diary and I had forgotten this one. Did I confess, or did I save face and just pretend I had been on my way, and ask to reschedule when good health returned?

One of the tests of whether dishonesty matters is who is harmed.  My friend was not harmed by my deception. Likewise no-one is harmed if I enrol in an electorate I don’t live in, 25 years ago to vote for a joke party. Key and Bronagh lived in Parnell but registered in the Helensville Electorate so they could vote for Key himself but do we care now? This is not a justification of either, just a common-sense test of who is harmed and what is worth getting in a tizzy about.

Conforming to a bad law is not always the best, most humane, or even sensible action. Anyone with even a modicum of history knows that. Much like the letter writer who thinks he knows right from wrong, absolutely, bureaucrats administer our highly dysfunctional welfare system by demanding adherence to the letter not the spirit of the law. The price of not conforming to their rule book can be very high, yet the price of conforming might be even higher in ill-health, loss of hope, and despair.

The problem is that what they are administering is not black and white. What for example is income? Is it the individual or couples income? What is a couple? What is the time frame? Is it taxable? What about income in kind (grandma provides babysitting for example or shock horror pick up the child after school sometimes)? What is business income? What expenses are deductible? Is child support income? What about Working for Families, when does it count as income? There are a multitude of different definitions for different purposes, often without much of a rational basis.

Here is just one example. Suppose you are a grandparent with a son and daughter-in-law who have 2 children and are struggling on an income of $50,000. Note that no one is on a benefit here.  You decide the best way to help them is to gift them $100 a week to help pay the household expenses. Much to your horror at the end of the year, Inland Revenue says to the family- you were given $5200 and because this is over the allowable $5000 we are going to count the whole of the $5200 as income for Working for Families.  Your daughter-in-law gets a bill for $1170.  What will you do the next year? (Note under National in 2018 her bill will rise to $1300).  Would you organise to direct debit only 50 weeks of the year and give the family $200 in some other way?  Only a masochist would continue to expose the family to such an outrageous bill.   Welcome to the murky world beneficiaries inhabit every day.

In 1994 CPAG was formed in response to the truly appalling changes Ruth Richardson rammed through in the early 1990s that saw rates of child poverty soar along with rates of 3rd world child diseases. Do people really understand that a sole parent’s benefit was cut below the poverty line but if they tried to earn extra money, they lost most of it?

A series of reports: “The welfare mess” (1994), “The welfare mess revisited”(1996), “Quantifying the welfare mess”(1998), “Entrenching the welfare mess” (2002), and “Escaping the welfare mess” (2009), failed to get traction.  A further paper: “Drowning in the welfare mess” (2012) was never completed– you guess it I drowned.  Perhaps now in 2017, solely because of one politician’s willingness to expose her own story, we can have an informed debate about what has gone so horribly wrong.

Suppose you were a sole parent in 1993 trying to exist on an income that had been slashed to under the poverty line. You needed an extra $80 a week to just keep your head above water. But $80 of extra income meant a tax/ACC bill of $24, it meant $20 less Accommodation Supplement (a very stupid 25% abatement on $0-80 earned), and $6 less core benefit (30% of income $60-80). If getting a flatmate to pay you $80, or earning an extra $80 delivered only $30, or virtually nothing after costs, what would you do?   Maybe you could go cap in hand and ask WINZ for additional assistance, maybe a non-recoverable grant, or a repayable loan, for example to meet the hire purchase payment on the washing machine. You may also need to queue for a food parcel from the local foodbank or even get a loan from a loan shark as a last resort.   

Making up the shortfall with loans and charity is time-consuming and inefficient in the extreme, especially if studying full-time. Impossible even?  There is nothing particularly moral about getting access to the needed money this way, the cost comes from WINZ, read taxpayers, or charities, read donors. But this tedious way of getting enough money to survive is within the rule book, satisfies the self righteous, and won’t be classed as an overpayment.

Or will it?  Unbelievably, today loans may be treated as income. If you just cant make ends meet and you borrow from a loan shark, your family, or extend your overdraft and credit card balances, the system may count these loans as income and reduce the core benefit and other assistance accordingly.  You become ‘”too poor to help”.

What do black and white thinkers make of that? Drawing down an overdraft or using a credit card are apparently the same as earning income.  One of the tests is that the money is used for ‘income related purposes as per the ACT:

Recently, I sat in on a case in the High Court; MSD had alleged overpayments because a beneficiary’s expenditure exceeded her benefit and the balance ‘must have been assessable income’.  She had to borrow to live, for example to pay for a car, repairs to her house and expensive healthcare for chronic pain. At one point the Judge asked quizzically if there was any loan that would not be counted as income. The Crown lawyer said, through gritted teeth, after a long pause: ‘yes, perhaps if the money was used to buy shares as that would not be a use for income-related purposes’.   Really?

Welcome to the dark fuzzy illogical Kafkaesque world where even repaying a loan financed by a bigger overdraft may be captured and called income, where decisions from Benefit Review Committee are confusing and unchallengeable for most beneficiaries who can’t understand how the alleged overpayments were calculated.  Furthermore, any appeal to the very powerful and well-resourced Social Security Appeals Authority lacks independence.  Few on a meagre benefit have the mental fortitude, or can access legal representation to take an appeal to a higher court. Those that do, face the full might of the state legal machinery that can grind them up and leave them destitute. This is why Kathryn’s story is so important and so rare.

 

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About the author

Co-director retirement policy and Research Centre, CPAG management committee

35 Comments

  1. TAT Westie says:

    Susan thank you, I try to read everything you write because you explain the dark fuzzy illogical Kafkaesque world so well.
    When Metiria’s confession came out initially I reflected (briefly) on the mess and mistakes of my 20-30s and was thankful, there but for – oh so many things. I’m in a better place now but wouldn’t like anyone to look over my life and “choices” from decades ago!
    So it was a shock to catch up with my Mother and hear expressed the outrage and fierce reaction her peer group had to this. Extremely disgusted and vigorously condemning rhetoric that really surprised me. It gave the Kennedy Graham situation some context.
    What was the trauma experienced growing up post WW2 and rationing? The mantra “our parents worked hard, we worked hard, no-one was looking for a hand-out” prevails. They had full employment I think?
    But I fear your message will get lost. Can someone please tell the news programs that having more than 4 kids if you’re not Jamie Oliver or the Beckhams is not cool? So interviewing Mother-of-five doing it tough is just going to reinforce the boomer hatred. The belief that these people are feckless and should NOT be given more money. So sad.

    • Susan St John says:

      I too have been shocked at the reaction. Post war New Zealand into the 1970s was a time when mostly mothers did not work- there was a family benefit, real weekends, little visual poverty. Jobs were plentiful, university cheap, holiday work easy to get. Sole parents plight was recognized with the DPB in the early 1970s. Then we had the generous National super that eliminated serious elder poverty. The 1980s saw the rapid rise in unemployment and then the seriously flawed 1991 budget that cut benefits in a recession– very bad macro policy- and introduced ridiculous levels of targeting. I think people have forgotten how dire the early 1990s were- but even Jim Bolger now says it was all too extreme.

      • Sumsuch says:

        Great to see you down amongst us ‘letter-writers’ Susan — I still remember the Listener’s Monty Holcroft’s distaste for us. I only half disagree with him.

        Invercargill, where I was in the early 2000s , lost 10 % of its population in the 90s — its muscle.

  2. David Stone says:

    Let’s hope everyone reads this.
    D J S

    • Susan St John says:

      David– I am sorry it is so long. I know attention spans are short. The tenor of the discussion to date is not encouraging

      • David Stone says:

        I didn’t mean to imply that it was too long, just that everyone should read it.
        Cheers D J S

        • In Vino says:

          Don’t despair. Susan – I avidly read what you put up, but rarely comment. A wonderful post, and not too long.
          It should be rammed down people’s throats… but there we are.

  3. Francesca says:

    Thanks Susan for providing the facts.
    Its a welcome answer to the grotesque ill informed bluster from the puffed up media .Hope this gets published widely

    • Susan St John says:

      I cant stand the way the ‘puffed up’ media have brayed for contrition. Honesty is not enough. Often in the investigation processes, beneficiaries are told to ‘show remorse’ to get a lesser sentence.

  4. Archonblatter says:

    ‘A letter in the NZ Herald this week asserts: “just as you cant be a little bit pregnant, you cant be a little bit dishonest”.’
    My sister actually bought a Herald that day and I read that letter in disbelief. The Herald has sunk to a new low publishing such witless garbage. Doesn’t the law itself allow for mitigating or extenuating circumstances? Certainly there have been cases when the plea in white collar fraud has been that the plaintiff had become accustomed to a life style which required more support.
    The neo-liberal era has seen more ponzi schemes, vast finamcial scandals and fraud and government collusion in these than in previous times. Think of TAFT, (Troubled Asset Relief Programme)rushed through congress in 2008, something all struggling benefit fraudsters should take to heart as a role model par excellence. TARP opened the Kentucky Fried State Takeaway Drive Through for a $700 million basket of gold encrusted niblits thus violating every principle of the free market and feeding crony capitalists thereafter.
    I too, have been astounded at the reactions to recent events by people I know. We live these days, in a global financial sewer while the world faces a sixth extinction. I wonder now, if this really matters.

    • Priss says:

      Agreed, Archonblatter. I wonder how saintly the life of that letter writer has been? It’s a shame their lives can’t be forensically examined as was Metiria’s. We might find more than a few unpleasant surprises in the closets of those morally-upstanding citizens. ( note sarc)

    • Susan St John says:

      so agree- we are surely more sophisticated than this!

  5. Nicke says:

    There are many people, in the media and elsewhere who should be sat down and forced to read your post.

    If they don’t get it, they should read it again.

    Failing all else, we can start by changing the government.

    Let’s hope that the political Left, at least, understand the Catch 22 of welfare policy.

  6. Archonblatter says:

    Perhaps the Greens could host host free showings at Community Houses round the country of this and other videos by Prof. Paul R. Ehrlich to all sanctimonious Kiwi slobs and sheilas with koha for tea and Bill’s bilious biscuits afterwards.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1j7TpoLmR60

  7. Tiger Mountain says:

    well written and informative piece Susan

    the MOAB was a quarter of a century ago but the effects are with us still, there was a shift in the mid 80s from Social Security with all its flaws, to a war on the “undeserving” poor and WINZ/MSD effectively now being sadistic punishment mazes

    good on you and AAAP and all the others that try and assist the vulnerable and build understanding about one of neo liberalisms primary dirty little secrets

  8. countryboy says:

    Your Post describes to me a sickness spread about by sick people. The lunatics who can be bothered penning such grandiose and pompous rules and laws must be un kissable freaks looking for a show. How has it come to this? That we acquiesce to those freaks and fools who push their madness on us? Ok. Ruth richardson, herself a freak of nature with a hair style like a worn hearth brush and her one eyebrow. A lonely caterpillar trying to hang itself in despair across her flat forehead overhanging two beady little eyes.
    She is our master. She says, and we do. How is that possible? What brain funk have they put upon us?
    We need to converge on Ch Ch and the Mighty Paper Place of Worship and make sure Metiria isn’t alone. This is it. This is the time and there is the place. In a crumpled, castrated city of brand new mirror glass shrines to sadistic narcissism deployed at us by those who enjoy the pain they inflict. Time to turn that particular situation about me hearties.

  9. arbeitslos says:

    No beneficiary can survive WITHOUT loans from various sources including friends and family. I was told by WINZ that they weren’t interested in debt (though obviously debt repayments have to be included in list of expenditure). All beneficiaries getting only what they are entitled to have greater expenditure then income, so the court case above truly appals me Susan. Did someone dob this person in or did WINZ spy on them to come to this conclusion? If you don’t get financial help in the form of loans, you end up living in a car and starving. Where have we come to in NZ that the right-wingers just don’t get it? A benefit is NOT enough to even pay for the basics. Do they have some Malthusian eugenics programme in mind – let the poor die?

    • Susan St John says:

      yes to dobbing in– she has name suppression so I dont want to say much more until the final day of hearing in HC on the 26th Sept. I have to pinch myself to realise this while is the 21st century basic accounting principles can be ignored

  10. Francesca says:

    Its not as if Metiria lolled about waiting to be saved. She was on the benefit for 5 years, which is actually a shorter time than most, and used that time to equip herself to be a future earner and tax payer.It must have taken a lot of dedicated hard work for her to get through law school after schooling that left her with no qualifications.
    If it took a few omissions to SW , who cares?Any one would think she’d murdered the flatmates, or abused her child , the fuss thats being made.
    I reckon she’s paid her dues, and got off the benefit in a remarkably short time.Good on you Metiria! You showed remarkable maturity.

  11. WILD KATIPO says:

    What amazes me is that we have allowed the neo liberal f@#k knuckle brigade so much leniency. 33 years we have let them get away with this drivel.

    I have read that Richardson approached Treasury to ascertain the minimum wage , and also how much a person would need to survive on a benefit ,- then set the benefit 20% below that !

    Three decades we have put up with these scum bastards , – 33 years !!!

    ——————————-
    Ken Douglas, then president of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, recalled in the 1996 documentary Revolution:

    The Employment Contracts Act was deliberately intended to individualise the employment relationship. It was a natural outcome of the ideological propaganda of rugged individualism, of self-interest and greed and the appeal to individuals that you could find better for you by climbing over the tops of your colleagues, your mates, and so on. Ruth Richardson was very clear, very blunt, very honest about its purpose. It was to achieve a dramatic lowering of wages, very, very quickly.[5]

    Roger Douglas, minister of finance in the preceding fourth Labour government, said (after his retirement from politics):

    I think the labour market changes in 1990 were first class. I think, unfortunately, Caygill and the Labour party had let the fiscal situation slip from where it was in 1988 and Ruth put that back on the road.

    ——————————-

    Think back to all the privatization , the restructuring , the mass redundancies, the unemployment, the closing down of state run dept’s that employed thousands ( NZ Rail , NZ Post etc ) , the huge protests of tens of thousands against Rogernomics, Ruthanasia , Shipley,… and the sheer arrogance of these shitter’s in totally ignoring what the voters were saying and ramming through all this shit.

    And all we ever got from the buggers were crap moralistic sayings like ” you will feel some pain now , but then you will reap the benefits ‘…

    Like bloody hell we did !!! , – three decades later and there ARE NO benefits.

    Just large numbers of people in poverty and homelessness such as we have never seen before in this country.

    The same scumbags that were instrumental in getting the 1991 Employment Contracts Act passed were the same shitheads who drew up the Mother of all Budgets. And for that we can thank the skulking Business Roundtable ( now calling themselves the New Zealand Initiative).

    How many times did those pricks use their political front people like Bolger, Richardson and Shipley to shaft this country and have them sell off all out state owned assets just so that they could buy them for fire sale prices, sack all the workers, asset strip them and hike up the prices?

    State owned assets that generations of Kiwis built up to provide infrastructure and a first rate standard of living for us all .

    All the while saying bullshit things like ” it will create a ‘ level playing field’ and introduce competition ” . Like merry hell it did. They knew all it was going to do was create monopoly’s so they could shaft New Zealanders even more.

    And now they have got the colossal gall to suggest beneficiaries should live in a hole in the ground and eat grass to stay alive , and using a dept that was set up as the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff because of the very policy’s these neo liberal arsewipes set up in the first place !!!

    Bloody bastards.

    See , I’m not quite as conciliatory or polite towards treasonous shitter’s.

    And I don’t ever recall treacherous bastards being rewarded with a knighthood , either.

    And you know what I think?… I think this country will never be healed until we reverse neo liberalism in NZ replacing that with a Keynesian based economy COMPLETE WITH ENFORCED REGULATIONS , take back our assets , pay a proper bloody Living Wage to workers, increase tax on all these scumbag shitter multinationals and corporate’s , and finally…

    Root out all these contemptuous treasonous suckers, stand each one of them before our courts , and make them answer for 33 years of treason , treachery , and the subversion of our democracy for their pecuniary gain.

    There.

    And all of that done without even so much as an apology or how do you do.

    And in case you think I’m making this up?

    Read this , and become outraged :

    New Right Fight – Who are the New Right?
    http://www.newrightfight.co.nz/pageA.html

  12. Andrea says:

    “the price of conforming might be even higher in ill-health, loss of hope, and despair.”

    True.

    Play straight and be forced to use your ladder to get out of the hole and back to health being ‘burned’ dollar by dollar, week on week just to pay the overheads. Eked out until all gone. Reduced to poverty deliberately.

    The multi-shaded gray people – and NO ONE spoke for us – apart from a few -since all this misery began in the 1980s.

    Which includes Mrs Turei among the quiet little voices.

    ” a common-sense test of who is harmed” – we, the beneficiaries who have seen the exits from poverty slammed shut, who go into humiliating places and humiliating situations and see life passing by. More suspicion. Less security. More scorn or indifference. Much more unwarranted interference and inquisition.

    Harm.

    Play it straight – and lose, for a lifetime.

    Mrs Turei had fifteen years to use political influence to either mitigate or eradicate the harms inflicted and today we are much worse off.

    Remember – she is NOT a sole voice at all. Many, many people have been sharing their stories of injustice for several years now. People such as Poto Williams and her team get out there in the electorate to use their influence to help and advocate.

    Perhaps it’s different for a simple list mp. Maybe it’s time that each and every tax-paid MP was assigned to an electorate to work for the people.

    In my view – ongoing harm was done to various cohorts. We’ll live with that, on a pittance, in fear, and under threat. Even under a ‘left’ government. After all – it was their idea in the first place.

  13. Marc says:

    MSD are themselves not all that honest, so I have noted:
    https://nzsocialjusticeblog2013.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/senior-scientist-and-legal-experts-discredit-evidence-used-by-msd-and-dr-bratt-when-claiming-the-health-benefits-of-work/

    A Senior Scientist revealed a while ago, how MSD and their Principal Health Advisor pushed for policy changes and tried influencing those in the medical profession, by using incorrect, false information:
    “Is the statement that if a person is off work for 70 days the chance of ever getting back to work is 35% justified?”

    https://www.nzma.org.nz/journal/read-the-journal/all-issues/2010-2019/2015/vol-128-no-1425-20-november-2015/6729

    The NZ Medical Journal wrote about it, but he is still in his job, enjoying full support by the Ministry!

    A few years ago they made changes to the Medical Appeals Board processes, that also further disadvantage beneficiaries making appeals against WINZ decisions:
    https://nzsocialjusticeblog2013.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/the-medical-appeal-board-how-msd-and-winz-have-secretely-changed-the-process-disadvantaging-beneficiaries/

    https://nzsocialjusticeblog2013.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/the-m-a-b-hearing-process-how-msd-secretly-changed-it-to-further-disadvantage-clients-oficial-post-18-03-15.pdf

    AND MSD Senior Advisors earn handsome salaries by the way, also while denying some sick and disabled support they need:
    https://nzsocialjusticeblog2013.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/msd-releases-oia-info-on-dr-bratts-and-other-senior-health-advisors-high-salaries-nearly-4-years-late/

    https://nzsocialjusticeblog2013.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/msd-releases-oia-info-on-health-advisors-salaries-nearly-4-years-late-post-30-04-171.pdf

    The power-balance is very unfair, disadvantaging lowly paid and desperate beneficiaries, fearful of WINZ when having to declare things, MSD wields great power, and they try to extend this all the time, when new welfare reforms are drawn up and presented to Parliament. For instance to so called Social Security Rewrite Bill, still not passed, plans to extend vastly the use of regulations, to change rules for those affected, which gives the welfare departments ever greater power.

    It simply astonishes me that most simply put up with this nasty regime, and so many in our society bash them all the time.

  14. Sumsuch says:

    What I really hate about the welfare dept is how it took on the flavour of whatever govt it was under post ’84. Its duty to NZ was to reflect the sentiment of its creation. I know its intelligent staff feel the treason of that. A good sort of ‘deep state’.

  15. Samwise says:

    The latest white middle class moralist was Jane Boston in the dompost. Same garbage from a privileged woman who has never been at the bottom of the scrapheap. People like he are a waste of space, judging when they have no experience with the harshness of life.