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May 16, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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The State of Welfare

Welfare has existed in New Zealand since the beginning of the 20th century. Old age pensions were provided from as early as 1898, and provision has been made to assist the unemployed since 1930. So it’s understandable that some New Zealanders see welfare as a way of life—it’s all some people know.

The Department of Social Welfare (now the Ministry of Social Development) was founded in 1972 with the aim of improving “people’s wellbeing, and of enabling communities to determine how they can achieve wellbeing for themselves”. The Welfare Working Group (WWG) has recently completed an exhaustive assessment of the welfare system in New Zealand, charged with making “practical recommendations on how to reduce long-term welfare dependency for people of working age” in April 2010. Through my personal experience in the welfare system, I will be evaluating some of the WWG’s overall recommendations against the system as it currently stands.

In New Zealand, anyone who needs help to “participate in the social and economic life of their communities” may receive assistance. Most healthcare is free, giving the sick help (such as in the form of a Community Services card) to get better. Education for children and teens is free, with the aim of giving all young adults a level playing field when they leave home. Tertiary education is made more accessible with generous financial loans or allowances from Studylink. There is assistance to write a CV, buy work clothes, and find a job while the Government helps you live until you find one. There are free services to help workers deal with any employment issues which may arise. It is very easy to be angry at the welfare system as it now stands, because despite the extensive assistance programs which are supposedly in place, most people rarely receive help in any other form than a dollar amount.

Currently, applicants are classified according to their position or situation—for example, student, single parent, pensioner, unemployed, sick or disabled. Based on this classification, you are entitled to a certain range of weekly financial assistance. You may be entitled to additional support based on circumstance—for instance, if you have encountered hardship (Temporary Additional Support), or have a low income for your location (Accommodation supplement). This is all capped with maximum potential amounts, and Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) reserves the right to change your payments at any time. Any NZ citizen is able to receive a food grant of up to $100 twice in a six-month period if they provide proof their bank account is empty, but if one is unable to support themselves weekly, $400 a year suddenly seems a lot less useful. Unless you put up your hand and ask for training or other assistance, you are a number and a dollar value—not a person in need of help. Friends on the unemployment benefit have received phone calls and been sent to interviews, but this is the extent of the assistance they have received; as a recipient of the sickness benefit and single parent domestic purposes, I have never been told of or recommended any further assistance, even when receiving TAS for extremely high rent: quoth my case worker, “Well, it’s not like you can’t change where you live.”

As WINZ’s calculations for your entitlement depends on such a large range of factors, it is seemingly impossible to work out exactly how much you will get should you apply. WINZ and Studylink have recently overhauled their websites in an effort to ensure beneficiaries are better placed to know which benefits, and supplements, to apply for. The end result? Everyone has to fill in the same mind-bogglingly vast amounts of information, in a process which takes even the most tech savvy at least 30 minutes, and spits out a list of benefits one might be entitled to receive. If you Google ‘Work and Income Manuals and Procedures’, you will be able to work out how much money you are entitled to, and why. Short of a miracle, this is the only way.

It would be great if the call service were able to train and retain staff so as to ensure a human accessible to the public actually knew this information. It’s worth buying a beneficiary a beer so they can tell you tales which all sound remarkably like a Monty Python sketch, generally involving very angry staff who tell you contradicting things and often end conversations abruptly with the words “I. DON’T. KNOW”. The only way to get what you need from WINZ is to be prepared for every eventuality before it occurs.

So where are the problems in this system? The Welfare Working Group, I feel, has hit the nail on the head. No one is empowered to make a change. The process of asking for help and filling in forms with no idea of the outcome is the first blow to one’s self esteem. Rarely, if ever, when speaking to a case manager or call centre, will one be given anything remotely resembling a choice or explanation of how to empower oneself out of their current situation. Currently, the system is geared to get the ‘right’ amount of money into your bank account. Instead, the WWG has recommended the entire welfare system focus on actively supporting all welfare recipients into paid work, by asking what recipients need to do in order to become more able to work. For example, instead of receiving a medical slip stating an individual is unable to work, the medical slip would state what the individual is able to do, within what limits, and how they could be supported in better improving their ability to work.

This is a matter close to my heart, as in order to revisit any of my previous professions, I need to remain industry-savvy and continue to train and learn. If these changes come into play, I will be actively encouraged to remain work-ready. Another great quote from a friend: “I’m having another baby instead. I can’t go back to work, it’s too different from what I’m used to now.” She is a doctor, who had her child 13 months ago. If being out of the loop for 13 months makes one feel unable to return to a profession they have been a part of for 13 years, I can only imagine how a lesser-skilled mother would feel if they waited until their child hit six years (when they are currently required to find a part time job).
Where I feel the WWG will fail, however, is in its inability to convince the Government to invest in a better functioning system. Focus needs to be on empowering the departments who deal with the public to ensure that case managers actually have the time and training to be able to provide in-depth assistance and support to all clients. The system as it stands may in fact be a worthwhile one, should those employed within it be given the tools required to actually do a good job! No streamlining or change to the structures of our welfare system will help if we do not provide enough funding to allow the system to work.

It should be made abundantly clear that everyone working for the Ministry of Social Development, from managers to call centers to case managers, is overrun with work. This leads not only to errors in approving benefits (consider the amount of benefit fraud we see in the papers), but longer time spent processing and more time required with renewed appointments which would be unnecessary if the benefit were adequately processed the first time! This is not their fault. This is entirely due to the constant funding cuts from one Government to the next. Here is why I have no faith whatsoever in any changes to the welfare system: New Zealand Governments are hardly famed for taking a long-term view, and it’s to our detriment.

I suppose one of the best things about this problem is every single welfare recipient can help make New Zealand a better place. Research possible training or assistance and ask to receive it, remain empowered to change your life for the better, and stop wasting the Government’s time. Nothing is more frustrating than sitting on the phone for hours to be told that your benefit still hasn’t been processed, so don’t be the reason for holdups. Many applicants will provide insufficient information on their application, or insufficient evidence, and WINZ is simply too underfunded to chase applicants for this information. The moment that you apply, you are expected to do everything in your power to get the benefit approved. You have to provide documents as soon as possible, and chase WINZ at every turn in order to be entitled to any backpay.

It is hard to see a benefit as a lifestyle choice when the standard of living one can afford is so low, but if one becomes accustomed to having little constructive to do during the day, one will likely remain in such a position. Aim to be as productive as possible, whether this involves working for money or not. While there seem to be a number of programs to help people into paid work, these schemes’ successes pale in comparison to their failures. The WWG’s concerns centre around the “few incentives and little support for too many welfare dependent people to move into paid work”, with concern for the large numbers of individuals on welfare who seem unable to fill job vacancies at all skill levels in New Zealand as a whole. You have to support yourself, and if you can’t do so, address why whenever possible, and ask for help.

A large concern for me in this respect is the issue of cultural barriers. While some feel ‘cultural difference’ is a meaningless concept regularly thrown around, the figures for reliance on welfare relative to ethnicity are disturbingly disproportionate. Government statistics indicate 31 per cent of Maori are on some type of benefit, despite making up about 14 per cent of the population. 44 per cent of Domestic Purposes beneficiaries (beneficiaries with a child or children, looking after disabled or elderly family) are Maori. The WWG has recommended a complete overhaul of Governmental support for Maori-focused incentives to ensure that Maori are supported and empowered to work productively in any industry. The welfare and schooling system seems unable to curb long-term dependency on benefits in Maori communities. As a result, disproportionate numbers of Maori children are not only growing up in poverty, but also seeing benefit dependency as the norm, maintaining an intergenerational reliance. The future of Maori success, again, unfortunately lies with funding the programs recommended by the WWG. If programmes supporting Maori to be productive members of society are not put in place, the standard of living for Maori as an entire ethnicity will be far below the rest of society, and the cycle of poverty will continue for Maori children.

The WWG only released its final report in February 2011, with a conclusion which recommended a complete overhaul of the entire welfare system. The exhaustive report is yet to be actioned, although John Key has indicated that many recommendations will be taken on board. We need to watch this space to hold our Government accountable for helping the most vulnerable members of society instead of simply cutting their assistance to make room in the budget. Nothing inadequately funded will work and perhaps this is the lesson we will learn, should we expensively overhaul the welfare system then leave it to stagnate.

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