Beneficiary 'impact' highlights poverty of social policies

Auckland's first-ever beneficiary 'impact' demonstrates poverty of policies as well as of people 

Almost unnoticed in the rush to Christmas, the first ever beneficiary ‘impact’ to be held in Auckland has been taking place this week at Onehunga’s Work & Income office.

Over the last three days I have been one of dozens of advocates from all over the North Island who have come together to help local unemployed people and beneficiaries obtain the full assistance they are legally entitled to at a time when anyone on a low income is feeling the dreaded pressures of Christmas.

What we found this week will come as no surprise to people struggling with access to income support and those who work with them. However, I wonder how many of those responsible for inflicting vicious new welfare legislation on an already desperate population have any idea about what’s really going on out here in the real world.                                                              

I wish Paula Bennett, John Key and many others of that crew could have seen and heard just a little of what we’ve seen and heard  this week. A few examples:

  • Good longstanding employees pushed out of jobs, then told they have to wait 13 weeks to get the unemployment benefit – when in fact their stand down should only be the minimum 1 -2 weeks after holiday pay is taken into account.
  • Sole parents who have been denied access to the full rate of DPB for years because there is no one at Work and Income who cares enough to advise them fully and clearly of their rights.
  • Many whose income from their benefit comes nowhere near what they need for the most basic elements of survival, including food – yet who are refused extra assistance until they undertake so called budgeting activities, such activities simply demonstrating over and over again that their income is fundamentally insufficient. 
  • Unemployed people pushed into daily ‘job search’ activities which are totally meaningless, harassing fed up businesses for jobs to meet their quotas.  Every single unemployed person I met this week was desperate for a job – and keenly looking. Work & Income should be                                                                      supporting & nurturing these people, not denying them benefits and crushing them with ridiculous job search targets, even more so with our unemployment rate now standing at 7.3%.
  • People on the invalid’s benefit literally shaking with fear at what their next meeting with a case manager will bring – benefit cut? Disability allowance cut? Move to work-tested benefit? – when they are already struggling just to survive each day.

The Children’s Commissioner’s expert group on child poverty released its final report this week. Among many other excellent suggestions, they recommend (page 40) that Work & Income and IRD be given incentives for ensuring ‘families living in poverty are receiving all their income support and tax entitlements.’

This couldn’t be timelier – yet the Government’s response to the report has been one of blithe disregard.

The Alternative Welfare Working Group launched its final report almost exactly two years ago after wide consultation. Its recommendations on welfare policies and practices remain as pertinent today as they were back then, yet have also been ignored by Government.

During the course of the ‘impact’ in Onehunga, we  held a political rally, blessed by a surprisingly full account by a contributor to the Standard blog.

Representatives of all parliamentary parties had been invited to speak to the rally about their welfare policies, but only three showed enough interest and respect to turn up – Labour, Greens and Mana. National and its support parties were noticeable by their absence – an absence I suspect reflects a fear of facing those whose lives are being so directly and adversely impacted by the current welfare reforms.

I would love the opportunity to publicly debate Paula Bennett about what she and her Government are doing and to offer some constructive alternatives – but this is a challenge I doubt the Minister will ever accept. 

At the same time, those of us who care about what’s happening for unemployed people and beneficiaries cannot afford to let Labour off the hook either.

In the 2000s Labour was responsible, among other things, for getting rid of the much-needed Special Benefit, reintroducing ‘no go zones’ in rural areas, introducing massive structural discrimination against the children of beneficiaries via the In Work Tax Credit, and undermining in legislation the very purpose of social security itself as established by Labour’s own forebears in 1938.

David Shearer’s recent speech in which he talked about a sickness beneficiary in a way guaranteed to appeal to beneficiary bashers nationwide has not given me confidence that Labour will do any better when they are once more part of Government.

So my challenge goes out equally to Labour – please let us know clearly before the next election what your policies on welfare and jobs are going to be. Are you going to overturn all of National’s reforms? Are you going to grant the In Work Tax Credit in respect of all children? Are you ever going to listen to those of us who do know what’s actually happening out here when you formulate your next round of income support and employment policies?

The Catholic social justice agency Caritas made an excellent submission to the Social Services Select Committee last week on the latest welfare bill. But the point that struck me above all from Caritas was their sense of despair and discouragement about the whole democratic process, and the unwillingness of the Government to divert from its ideological course in the face of practical, evidence based and ethical challenges.

On the other side of all this, the past couple of decades have seen far too much of the community sector colonised and silenced by government and the right.

Over the next two years those of us out here who really want to turn things around on welfare and jobs have a lot of work to do – join us in that work, if you dare.