Auckland Action Against Poverty Welfare Impact

Today I am going to give a brief overview of the recent Auckland Action Against Poverty Welfare Impact that I attended, what drives me to work in this area, and my plans to build a sustainable welfare advocacy service in Otepoti.

Firstly, my interest in welfare stems from my upbringing, living in a household sustained by the Domestic Purposes Benefit, and my personal experience being a sole parent receiving what was called the DPB before the National Government abolished it, and classed all parents as ‘jobseekers.’

A small disclaimer: I am not a “jobseeker” and no sole parent in Aotearoa is a jobseeker.  Parents have a job already, the most important job there is, to care for our babies and build healthy, happy, and capable, children.

Recent attacks on welfare effectively undermine parenting as a valid, fundamentally important function in Aotearoa. They try to set paid workers against unpaid workers, to ensure people in the paid working class attack unpaid workers instead of the real target, the ruling class. The attacks perpetuate the myth that our society cannot afford to pay a living benefit to parents, people who are unwell, and those looking for work. In reality, it’s not those receiving benefits that are bleeding our taxes, but corporate welfare. Decent welfare means decent wages for workers. We are not separate, but dependent on each other to stand united and fight the capitalist system.

I remember as a child going to what was called Social Welfare and seeing my mum screaming at the clerks, leaving in tears on several occasions. I knew from a young age that they were our enemy, but that we needed them to survive. My mum taught me that parenting was a job that you needed to take seriously, and that parents should be treated with respect.

When I started to deal with Work and Income as a sole parent, I had similar experiences as my mum had nearly 25 years previously. WINZ staff and management treated me with contempt, distain, and complete undisguised disrespect. I’m fortunate that I am not shy about making my feelings clear, and have always viewed my dealings with WINZ as an act of war against the Ministry of Social Development. My attitude has always been one of challenging MSD to acknowledge parenting as an important job.

When you are the victim of welfare bashing over a long period of time, it often reflects in the way you view the importance of your own role. When you are told day in and day out by people in the paid working class that you are not contributing and are in fact taking from them, you start to question your role and its importance. This doctrine is reinforced day to day by the ruling class media. Is it any wonder that when women are asked what they do, they reply “I’m just a mum”.

I enjoy pulling case managers up on their attitudes, behavior, and challenging them to act in a manner that reflects the MSD service charter:  “to be treated with courtesy and respect, cultural sensitivity, be given fair, non-judgmental service”. In reality welfare recipients experience none of the above. The true reality is that we are treated in a way that attacks our mana. The message constantly reinforced from Government, media, and WINZ staff is that parenting work, community work, caring for the unwell, and being unwell is nothing more than a burden on the state, and a burden on all those in paid employment. The reality is that this country’s economy would collapse if it weren’t for the unpaid labour that we do.

The latest reforms have seen an end to the DPB and end to the state’s acknowledgement that parenting is valued and important work. Though the new legislation makes this official, society has been indoctrinated into believing this propaganda a long time ago.  It is disgustingly ironic that these reforms were sold to the masses by Paula Bennett, a former solo mother, under the rhetoric of protecting vulnerable children.

The institutional culture within MSD perpetuates the propaganda of a ‘welfare crisis’. We have a welfare crisis all right, we are in crisis when we have multinational conglomerates like McDonald’s getting quarter of a million dollars in subsidies, yet we can’t pay a living benefit to the most vulnerable members of our society. Those doing the bulk of unpaid labour in Aotearoa are treated as second class, marginalized, oppressed, victimized, abused, and used as a political football.

Recently with the help of ISO and AAAP I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Auckland Action Against Poverty’s ‘Welfare Impact’.  A Welfare Impact is where welfare advocates from across Aotearoa unite together for a day of training and up skilling, and then have three days on ‘Impact’. Generally on day one of the Impact, the case manages have been briefed to be on their best behavior, and be the yes men & women to the advocates’ cases and requests. This is part of the MSD’s tactic to show that the institutional culture that advocates and welfare recipients criticise, isn’t real.

On day two however, having realized that nearly every person that walked into our advocacy action walked out with a considerable pay increase and often with back pay, new TVs, fridges, washing machines, beds, and other essential items that they had previously been denied, or were too ashamed to ask for, the MSD changed their approach and tried, without success, to decline many of our cases.

The difference between advocates and WINZ clerks (among many) is that advocates work from the legislation while WINZ staff work from the minister’s directives or whatever they make up at the time. Legally this is absurd. Case workers often do not understand the legislation and many hours were spent dealing with specialized cases, where both sides were locked in debate about the meaning of the legislation, until Wellington was phoned for the final say.

Nearly every-time the Impact interpretation was correct and we won. You could visually see the egos of Winz staff deflate as the power they wield over people they clearly view as inferior, decreased. Seeing the mana of the people we were advocating for increase was something I will never forget. It’s a horrible position to be in, to be dependent on a system that treats you as inferior, a burden, and treats you in such a way that every time you have to deal with them, you are further degraded and demoralized. But to access the funds you require to live; you are forced again and again to deal with the abuser.

Every single case that I worked on told a story of suffering. People struggling to survive, not to have a decent standard of living, but to stay alive. It was a very emotional journey for me coming face to face with people that were suffering, and I’m still processing that.

One lady’s words in particular made me cry. An elderly Maori woman sat and waited for hours to see an advocate. She explained her ordeals with WINZ to me, and asked if she was entitled to anything more than the $20 a week she was living on after paying rent and electricity. She leant over the table and looked at me with tears in her eyes and said “This is not my culture you know. I’m Maori, and this living is not Maori culture. They did this to us, and it hurts in my heart.”

Another person who particularly stands out (though every case was an amazing story that I feel privileged to have heard), was that of a Ports of Auckland worker. He came early in the day with his wife and baby. They waited for an hour before I could see them. He explained to me that he had worked for years at the Ports of Auckland and had lost his job during the industrial dispute last October. He was a softly spoken, and very humble. He said that he felt guilty to come for help when he felt like there was other people that needed it more.

The Government tells us that people on welfare or seeking welfare support have an entitlement mentality. I have found the exact opposite to be the case.

I looked over their case, and established that WINZ was paying this whanau $55 a week on Temporary Additional Assistance. That was the grand total of income for him, his wife, and their four children. I asked him what other income he was getting to which he replied none. But why are you not on the unemployment benefit I asked? Because I came in in February and WINZ said I didn’t qualify for a benefit, and started the $55 a week payment.

It had been 11 months since he lost his job, 11 months with no income apart from the $55 a week WINZ had allowed him to maintain the six-person family. He was really, really keen to work, but just couldn’t find employment. His family had sold everything they owned and were desperate.

They lived in a state house, with prepaid power that had run out. He said that they had sold everything they owned, and borrowed money from friends and family to try and get by for nearly a year. I approached MSD staff and accessed his file, shich showed that the case manager he saw in February had declined him the “jobseeker” benefit because he was in industrial dispute with the Ports of Auckland. The case manager had taken it on themselves to determine that because he was in industrial dispute and not seeking employment, even though he had stated several times he was keen for any job.

It was a pretty clear-cut case. The WINZ clerk had failed to establish his full and correct entitlement, and made an incorrect, personal judgment. The Social Securities Act 1964, Section 80 AA states that the: Minister may allow back-dating of benefit where earlier failure to grant it based on error. (b) in the case of applicants of a stated kind or description,—  (ii) at earlier times, some applicants of that kind or description tried to apply or applied incompletely, and did not proceed because of some erroneous action or inaction on the part of the department. We managed to have the family put on the benefit immediately, get them a $400 non-recoverable food grant, and we are now trying to ensure this family is back-paid the benefit from February when he first applied.

The importance on welfare advocacy cannot be stressed enough. We face the abolition of the Domestyic Purposes Benefit (DPB) and the abolition of the sickness benefit. We are all now ‘jobseekers’. Case managers now have complete authority and power to determine who is fit to work, and when. In Dunedin/Otepoti we have no formal welfare advocates. Some church organizations receive funding to provide this service, but have no training in this area, and when I have approached them in the past they state that they can only be of ‘moral’ support to welfare recipients.

I am now arranging a welfare advocacy training session. The Methodist Mission has offered to host the training, but I will likely push for a different location and host because the Mission recently announced it had been awarded two new programmes from Work and Income. These programmes are not simply training opportunities, as the Mission would have us believe but obligations put on to “jobseekers”, which, if they do not meet, can result in a 50% cut in their benefit; continued non-compliance can result in the benefit being cut completely.

This does not sound like the ethical position for a church organization to take, given that historically such organizations have kept their autonomy to speak out for the poor, and fight back against punitive welfare measures.

Sadly, most church groups and agencies in Dunedin and around the country seem to have taken the same stance. Many taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in MSD contracts to provide “budgeting services”. This sounds like useful work until you realise it is just another hoop to jump through in a system of punishment. Budgeting obligations for welfare recipients are used as punitive measures. They are used to make it impossible to access support for immediate need, and often people are sent to budgeting repetitively. Their income has not changed, their outgoings have not changed, but still people are forced to seek budget advice. The agencies providing this service see the ridiculousness of the situation, but are unwilling to bite the hand that now feeds them.

What can we do?

As the reforms start to hit people, advocacy is going to become more and more vital. It is essential Dunedin has an advocacy service that can fight for the rights of those on welfare. One that can ensure full entitlements are delivered, and have the autonomy to speak out politically about how the reforms are affecting people. This sometimes seems an impossible task to me as I meet veteran welfare advocates and hear their stories of struggling over decades to do just that. I think it is possible to build a sustainable model of welfare advocacy, and that is what I have been trying to establish.

There will be welfare advocacy training in November, and I encourage people to come along to this three day training. Though the road is unclear, the need to negotiate that road is overwhelming. I encourage everyone to think about what they can contribute to building welfare advocacy in Dunedin, because the need is a desperate and an immediate one.

Olive McRae gave this talk to the Otepoti branch of the ISO in September this year.