Why our Welfare System Must Change
“WINZ keeps denying me entitlements and I’m at my wit’s end.”
My name is Chloe and as a welfare advocate, every other day I receive messages like this from people who are desperately trying to get assistance from WINZ such as food grants and the accommodation supplement.
You’d think in a country like Aotearoa, where we pride ourselves on a ‘fantastic’ human rights track record, that kai and access to other fundamental necessities would be a given. Welfare should even provide enough to live on with something left over so parents can take their kids to the movies or go out for a nice meal out from time to time. People don’t choose to live in poverty. Punishing vulnerable people by denying the small luxuries that offer a short break from acute poverty is cruel.
Only a few weeks ago, someone I was advocating for told me they had been skipping daily meals to save money. They were practically starving themselves because welfare payments are so low they simply couldn’t afford three meals a day.
People are being forced to starve themselves and make impossible decisions, in a country where there are plenty of resources to go around.
The only thing that will turn this around is a huge groundswell of people demanding every person in New Zealand has enough money to feed themselves.
Hannah Mcgowan is a sole mum living with a chronic illness who has reluctantly relied on welfare for much of her adult life. She describes life on welfare as depressing, anxiety-causing, and isolating.
“Being on a low income affects me in many ways. Sometimes I feel too guilty to eat. I feel like it should all go to my kids. I can’t afford to see my doctor as much as I need to and I feel like I am slipping through the cracks.”
I’ve spent the last four years advocating for people like Hannah who receive income support, as well as people who earn pitifully low wages. I’ve witnessed firsthand the humiliating and harmful way caseworkers treat people on benefits — nearly everyone I’ve advocated for has been reduced to tears. I’ve also lost count of the number of times I’ve had to fight to overturn decisions to withhold hardship assistance such as dental grants, leaving people in agonising pain.
The harsh culture at WINZ, the sanctions which cut already low welfare payments, and the wider social shame of being a beneficiary, forces people into gruelling and dangerous situations.
Hannah has had her fair share of knockbacks that wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t been forced to rely on the welfare system to get by.
“WINZ has forced me to stay in abusive relationships for financial reasons because they have sanctioned my benefit so I’ve had to rely on someone else.”
“The fear of financial instability and being unable to work and provide an income independently is a powerful reason to stay with someone who is abusing you but provides economic support. When I have left I’ve often found myself needing to move and get into more debt just to find suitable and safe housing. Or I’ve had to take in flatmates because I can’t afford to live alone and I’ve ended up being stolen from. On one occasion I was sexually assaulted by a flatmate.”
Welcome to our WINZ system: It isn’t just broken, it is brutal.
Will you sign Child Poverty Action Group’s petition demanding that our government lift welfare payments, remove all sanctions, and treat all adults as individuals so no one is bound in an abusive relationship like Hannah was?
At the beginning of the month, the Labour-led coalition government was presented with a blueprint to inject compassion back into our welfare system. The timing is perfect because, in 2018, Jacinda Ardern said,
“I want this government to be known for compassion, kindness and community building”.
Right now, the Government has the power to change the lives of people like Hannah, and her children for the better.
The report urgently recommended that welfare payments be raised immediately, sanctions be removed and, among many other things, strongly urged the government ensure respect and that whakamana tāngata (uplifting people’s mana) are at the heart of our welfare system.
Of the over one hundred life-changing and thoughtful recommendations made by the working group, the government has so far committed to only three, and just one will be implemented during this political term.
This simply is not good enough.
This post was written by Chloe Ann-King, an Auckland based workers and welfare rights advocate. She is currently studying a masters of Human Rights at AUT. You can follow Chloe at @GGrucilla on Twitter.
- New hope for rough sleepers as Auckland City Mission new building begins, Stuff, June 2019
- Whakamana Tāngata, Welfare Expert Advisory Group, 2019