I know how hard it is – my daughter became a beneficiary when she was 23. She was a university student, supported by her partner. They had an 11 month-old child when her partner died. She was determined to finish her degree so she applied for a widow’s benefit – the same as the DPB back in 2012. She was also determined to play absolutely by the WINZ rules. (Of course, this was on top of dealing with the loss of her beloved man, and looking after their beautiful little baby on her own.)
She’d been on the benefit a week when I visited her and her eyes just filled with tears. How was she going to do this? She could afford to buy food – but not the healthy fresh fruit and vegetables, wholemeal bread and lean meat she wanted to give her child. So, unknowingly, unwittingly, her parents helped her commit benefit fraud – we gave her healthy food so she could give her child the good start in life that every child should have. We helped her buy clothes for her child, and sometimes herself.
We all discovered in August 2017, through events playing out in the media, that she should have declared our gifts of food and clothing and sometimes money so her benefit could be reduced.
Many times I’d visit and find her with a letter from WINZ in her hand, either in tears or pulling her hair out in frustration.
. . . But she made it. She now has a good job which she loves. At her final meeting with WINZ she asked for a Transition to Work Allowance. She had had part-time work which needed to be taken into account, so she’d taken a print-out of her most recent bank statement. This showed, alongside her wages, some reimbursements from her work. The case-worker insisted these reimbursements were wages and needed to be included as such. My daughter, by now no longer vulnerable, was able to stand her ground and insist she was correct. But not before another person was called in for a second opinion!
Over the years, I worried that if my strong, stroppy daughter could be brought so low by WINZ, what was it like for the people who weren’t strong and stroppy, who didn’t have a family who knew her/his rights and was right there to support her/him?
I have learned that I was right to worry . . . .
At 9 AM the queue of people seeking help from an advocate stretches from the main entrance of the office down the outside of the building. Overnight it was 4°. It is a little warmer now. There is occasional rain from which there is no shelter because of the direction of the wind.
Inside it is warm. The first five people seeking emergency help have been let in and are being processed at the front desk. They are then sent into a seminar room where they wait their turn. Only five people, and their supporters, are allowed into the seminar room at one time. The rest must wait outside in the cold, although there is room inside for at least 20 more.
The first young man I work with is a delight. He is quiet, polite, and determined to raise himself out of poverty. His father has died two weeks ago and his estranged partner has sent his four children, aged six, five, and twins of three, to be with him as support. He has them for another week before they go back to their mother. His siblings, aged 12 and 13, are now living with him. They had been living with their father. The young man needs emergency food. He has just been evicted from his house – no reason given – he is up-to-date with rent and has looked after the property. He suspects his neighbours complained when his father’s funeral procession drove past to pick him up. His father was a member of the Mongrel Mob. The young man had been a member also, and since he came out of prison last year, has tried to leave all that behind. He can think of no other reason for his eviction. He is given emergency food and signed onto social housing.
Another young man I sit alongside needs food, money for petrol and money for power. He is looking for a job driving a fork hoist. Last week he went into a yard and asked if they were looking for a fork hoist driver, and was told they were. About a minute into the interview, the boss stopped and told him he couldn’t employ him because he was missing a front tooth. That wouldn’t look good in front of customers.
I sit with a man who looks quite elderly and who is pretty deaf. I discover he is six years younger than I am. He needs emergency food, money for petrol and electricity, and money to pay a bill for a long list of medicines. The medicines include two drugs which are not subsidised. One costs nearly $150, the other $70. The caseworker says they are too expensive and can’t be paid for. I suggest it is not a good idea to play around with medicines. She repeats that it is too expensive. She consults the office manager, and returns to make a phone call. I suggest she should call his doctor, but she laughs and says you’d never be able to get hold of a doctor. She will ring the MSD health team. She tells me they are well-trained. (But they have never met this man and do not know what this medication is for.) The health team is clearly wary of removing the expensive medicine. The caseworker calls the pharmacy and learns the man requires the medication. She is not to remove it from his list. Payment is agreed. The man turns to me and says “why are they like this when you are here? When you are not here they shout at me and argue with me.” All I can do is shrug.
It is nearing lunchtime. There is still a long queue outside. It is still bitterly cold. There are several children who have nothing to do. In the seminar room it is warmer. There are seven or eight people. One of three children who have made it inside, has taken off all his clothes except his nappy and is dancing on the table. His mother is seeing a caseworker in the large office area outside the seminar room. I lift him to the floor and he runs into the main office area, joins his slightly older brother, and together they race up and down shouting loudly.
Several people have come needing money to buy a phone. A phone is essential if one is job-hunting. It is also essential if one is on the Housing New Zealand list. One of the caseworkers today is happy to grant $149 for a phone. Another insists that $39 is enough for a phone. I point out the difference between caseworkers, and the second one adds $110 to the initial offer.
The music being played throughout the office is slightly loud and slightly too aggressive for me. It is making me feel stressed. I wonder if that is just me or whether it has that effect on other people as well.
One of the women I assist asks about the impact days which have been run in the past. Would there be any more? I imagine there will be. The caseworker joined in the conversation. She tells us people started queueing at 3 AM each morning to ensure they would have an advocate to support them. She tells us people came in bus loads from as far away as Rotorua. She tells us hundreds, maybe thousands, of people were seen, but many missed out. She gets quite excited and animated as she tells us all this. The elephant sits quietly in the room.
I sat with a young woman who is in emergency housing. A week ago she arrived home in the evening with her sick son, who had just been discharged from hospital with bronchiolitis. Her belongings were sitting on the front doorstep; her mother was no longer willing to have her live there. With her daughter and sick son, she spent a very cold weekend in her car. On Monday she found emergency housing. Now she was needing emergency food. She talked with me about her young daughter who, she says, has such a loving heart. When they were living with her mother the daughter asked her to make some spaghetti bolognese to take to feed homeless people, which they did. The young woman told me how she reads to her children every night before they go to sleep. How she asks them questions to make sure they are listening. We talked about the kinds of things one can ask about a story to make it fun and to help extend imaginations. She is excited and feels it was no accident she met me today.
The young woman suddenly looked around and said how much she liked the way people working in this office dressed – quite casually, which made her feel comfortable. She didn’t like it when caseworkers wore suits and ties. She found them intimidating. The caseworker explained that today was casual Friday. They dressed down once a month.
At one desk, the chairs on which the person I was helping and I sat were quite low. On the other side of the desk, the caseworker’s chair was much higher than ours. It felt intimidating.
I sat with a woman and her 13-year-old daughter. They needed emergency food, money for petrol and electricity, money for clothing. The woman’s sister had died, and because ‘nobody else wanted her’, the woman was taking in her 17 year old niece. These two girls and another daughter, 16, were about to start a course at “TAPS” where “you learn to read and write.” I think TAPS is a private training organisation. The woman was very dismissive of the local high school where, she said, her daughters were bullied by staff and students alike.