When Metiria Turei and the Green Party spoke up about welfare last month, this is what they were talking about. What we’ve seen in the past few weeks is a mirror for what it is like on a benefit. It’s far too often brutal, and NZ by and large simply hasn’t cared enough to do much about it. The degradation of welfare in NZ has been a long, culturally endorsed project and this is where we have come to.
Stuff are reporting on Christchurch man Peter Lawrence who has been on Invalids Benefit (now Support Living Payment) for more than 30 years. He is tetraplegic, which makes him highly dependant. His income is normally $370/wk. WINZ recently cut his benefit down to $170/wk at no notice and left it at that rate for 4 weeks. Of the experience Lawrence said,
I was beside myself; it was very distressing.
There is so much in Peter Lawrence’s story. Some of the things that stand out for me are this:
WINZ say that Lawrence was one of 373 long term beneficiaries having their Disability Allowance reviewed. That would require beneficiaries to prove that they spend their benefit on already approved disability costs. The number of beneficiaries in NZ receiving Disability Allowance is much higher, so this looks like a random review. WINZ have the ability to allow long term beneficiaries to simply say on the review form that their costs haven’t changed, so there really was no need for this to happen other than some boxes needed to be ticked in MSD bureaucracy.
Local Labour MP Poto Williams,
[Pete] had no help to try and get that information but here’s the thing: he is still disabled.
For that four weeks that his benefit was cut he wasn’t un-disabled and not un-entitled – he was entitled to that benefit.
Here’s another thing. This story is common place. Anyone who’s spent a length of time on a benefit will be reading that and going yep. Having one’s benefit cut while still dependent, having it cut with no notice, being expected to provide documentation that one can’t access, being reviewed for no good reason – in a twist of the knife WINZ often frame this as wanting to make sure the beneficiary is getting what they are entitled to. Not getting entitlements in the first place is also common.
The system is broken. Lest people still in denial about this think that it’s a one off, here’s Williams again,
Williams said her staff were dealing with an increasing number of cases involving Work and Income clients who were not receiving payments they were entitled to.
Staff had supported 77 constituents with issues with their benefits this year and Williams said Work and Income’s “delay and obfuscation” needed to stop.
“I think a lot of it is designed to eliminate people out of the system … they just give up.”
What NZ is now facing is the fact that this is intentional. It’s what the government designed, and they’ve done so with the backing of a chunk of NZers who believe that it’s right and fair to treat beneficiaries like shit. And no, you don’t get to separate out beneficiaries into the deserving poor and the undeserving ones, because the backlash against Turei is the exactly the same dynamic that enables WINZ to treat people like this, and is what gives National the mandate to run welfare into the ground and destroy people’s lives.
So what can be done? Changing the government is a no brainer at this point but given Labour’s unwillingness to touch welfare a new government needs a strong Green presence.
Then look seriously at the Green Party policy on welfare. They don’t want to do away with welfare or tinker with it, they want to value social security by mending the safety net. In the case of Peter Lawrence the policy would increase his base benefit by 20%, remove the need to continually prove disability entitlement, create a culture of compassion at WINZ including reintroducing case managers who are trained in the area they work in (e.g. disability) and who get to know the specific situation each client has (i.e. putting fail safes in place). These are all straight forward, easy to implement now solutions that would make immediate improvement in the lives of almost all beneficiaries.