The organisation widely known as WINZ, but in reality Work and income, has been in the media again. There is widespread acknowledgement, even by the Minister, that Work and Income is not operating as it should, causing distress and lack of entitlements for thousands of people, many of whom are living below the poverty line.
Even where the organisation delivers according to its mandate, highly punitive sanctions put in place by successive governments means that some families simply cannot make ends meet at all. They can’t pay their bills and live. They are driven either to benefit fraud (take in boarders, live in secret with someone, take up a cash job such as prostitution) which can end them up in prison, or to pay day loan people who will exploit them with usurious interest rates. It is not a happy existence.
If that were all, it would be bad enough. But my own recent research on Work and Income raises significant questions about the functionality of the system that delivers welfare support to New Zealanders. The Minister, in bravely acknowledging the problems, notes however that change will take some time – years in fact.
I think my research into grandparents raising grandchildren is the most current research that actually peers into the system to see what’s wrong. The findings have been published and well read within government agencies. While I agree (a) that attempts to change the culture of the organisation have not had much effect, and (b) that there is a lot to do, I do think some simple steps can make a difference fairly quickly and should be implemented as soon as possible.
The government should also be encouraged to know that the many errors and mishaps that pepper the system can be stamped out relatively easily, and that this should save a lot of money. This is because people may get their entitlements first time, to stop the downward slope into poverty.
So what my research found was that the offices were badly designed and not fit for purpose, the experiment of dropping individual case managers in favour of dealing with whoever is there has increased confusion and muddled decision-making, clients get mixed messages and often wrong advice and that many welfare transactions are dogged by judgemental attitudes and a culture of denying entitlement.
Thus what should be a straightforward transaction of assessing and granting income support while steering into a better future is heavily impeded by an inefficient and incompetent system with a heavy dash of stigma and discrimination.
I often quote Peter Marston who wrote, about Australia:
By dropping our research gaze to the street-level of policy implementation we have illustrated how what might seem straight forward and clear at the macro level of analysis quickly becomes murky, contested and ambiguous.
In short, there is a big gap between policy and practice. In our study, only 15% of grandparents seeking assistance from Work and Income were told about the existence of the Unsupported Child Benefit, a lifeline for families in this situation, on first enquiry. Many took ages to find out about this, largely due to the work of the NGO Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. Some never found out.
There are a couple of fairly easy fixes to a good proportion of the problems described in the paper. One, for example, is to display the W and I service charter in every office and encourage people to seek further help if they think the charter has been breached. The Charter promises prompt and efficient service, assistance provided where required, to be listened to in an understanding and caring way, respectful and friendly services and alternative sources of assistance.
The first fix then is to display the charter prominently and ensure that staff live up to it. When we did our research we found that the charter was not displayed in any of the local offices around here.
The second is to ensure that an advocate is available to everyone facing difficulties. Actually, the best way to facilitate good decision-making would be to fund advocacy services in all regions and all offices. There is no doubt that a knowledgeable advocate leads to good outcomes. I don’t see why Work and Income shouldn’t pay for this service, given it is often their systems or ‘culture’ at fault.
In terms of a long-term outcome, a friend of mine is adamant that what is needed is to once again link the system of income support with the system of social welfare. In practice this means that social workers (instead of low-paid administrators) would assess and approve benefits, as used to be the case. While largely hidden from public view, a lot of public misery to some of our most vulnerable families is caused by the current system of Work and Income. At heart, a system that often seems opposed to the wellbeing of people needs to become the frontline agency for ensuring that wellbeing.
Dr Liz Gordon began her working life as a university lecturer at Massey and the Canterbury universities. She spent six years as an Alliance MP, before starting her own research company, Pukeko Research. Her work is in the fields of justice, law, education and sociology (poverty and inequality). She is the president of Pillars, a charity that works for the children of prisoners, a prison volunteer, and is on the board of several other organisations. Her mission is to see New Zealand freed from the shackles of neo-liberalism before she dies (hopefully well before!).