Last week I got another call from a caseworker at Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ), checking in because I’m about to roll over the 52-week cut-off point for the Job-Seekers payments. Meaning, it’s time for me to apply for continuance of these core payments, or else they will stop and I will have to apply in full all over again—a process involving a 50+ page application that asks invasive and often dehumanising questions about your economic and personal life.
The call wasn’t the worst I’ve ever had from WINZ caseworkers, who are notoriously low on humanity and empathy, nor was it the most humiliating experience I’ve had. But the bar is really low. After being raped several years ago I asked a WINZ caseworker about the Supported Living scheme, which provides welfare payments for people with disabilities or serious mental health issues that prevent them from working more than fifteen hours a week. My mental health had deteriorated so badly that I honestly didn’t feel I could cope with full-time work.
I cannot remember the caseworker’s words verbatim, but she effectively told me to suck it up and that it would have been pointless for me to apply for that type of income support because it was ‘really hard to qualify’. I walked out of that WINZ office holding back tears. I used my credit card to buy two bottles of cheap wine and drank myself into oblivion.
This last call was the same as the previous two calls I’ve had from WINZ in the past month or so. They asked the same invasive questions over and over again that every other caseworker had already asked me. This is basically how the conversation went:
Caseworker: ‘what are you doing for work?’
Me: ‘I run a hospo union called Raise the Bar and work 30-40 hours a week but we don’t have funding yet so it’s mostly volunteer other than my Patreon that I report to WINZ every week.’
Caseworker: ‘Oh so you aren’t looking for full-time work?’
Me: ‘I’m applying for the WINZ flexi wage and yes I do work full-time. Google the Union I founded, and you will see how much mahi [work] I’ve done.’
Caseworker: ‘… But you need to be available for full-time paid work …’.
Me: ‘Maybe, if three years ago a caseworker had told me about the flexi wage and the business grant, I’d have been able to get revenue into the union I founded, faster. It’s not my fault caseworkers routinely hide relevant information.’
Caseworker: [repeats same shit about working full-time and my responsibilities to WINZ]
… and around and around we go.
I’ve tried to explain to WINZ my not-so unique working arrangement. They include freelance writing as well as running a not-for-profit hospitality union. Nobody at the other end of the line ever understands or even tries to understand. Inevitably, the latest caseworker told me that I’m at risk of losing Job Seekers income support as I’m ‘not available for paid full-time work’.
After the call, I sat staring into the distance, trying to self-soothe the anxiety I felt in response to the conversation. I then started writing this piece, because putting it all down on paper helps me process what I’m feeling—and because we need to tell each other what it’s like to deal with the system, what its everyday realities are.
I know many others who’ve felt suicidal or seriously anxious after a phone call from WINZ. Many of my friends are poor and on income support, and we often talk amongst each other about how the punitive approaches caseworkers engage in to contribute to our feelings of loneliness leading to depression. My disabled friend Elizabeth (not her real name), who is on Supported Living, painfully summarised what dealing with WINZ has been like for her, and the impacts it has had on interpersonal relationships:
The most insidious thing about beneficiary life for me is the deceit; the lies that us beneficiaries tell to our extended whanau, any new people we meet, or the person at the dairy… ‘What do you do?’ My reality is that I rarely leave the house anymore and don’t try and join a group/free class/volunteer because of the embarrassing questions I might get asked about my job status.
The lies we end up telling ourselves throughout the day and night about our self-worth … they are the worst and the suicidal ideation that comes with living in poverty long-term.
Many of us on income support payments end up denying we are on such payments when our friends and whānau ask about our economic situations, let alone strangers. We have learned over time that most people hate poor people more than they hate poverty. This constant pretence only adds to the feelings of social isolation that are created when you are paid income support payments that are deliberately set at least 20 per cent below the poverty line, making it all but impossible to participate in society. Elizabeth speaks to what this isolation feels like over time:
The most profound thing about disability isn’t even the myriad losses and griefs as your body gives out on you.
The most crushing aspect of illness and the long-term beneficiary life is the people who withdraw from you, even, when you’ve worked so hard over two to three decades to maintain friendships; friends disappear when you aren’t also on the ‘kids, marriage, career, working, house buying …’ pathway to prosperity.
For a bulk of people on income support payments, Covid lockdowns are just an extension of Income Support Groundhog Day that we’ve been enduring for many years—some of us for decades. If you think lockdowns are exhausting, try surviving the WINZ Squid Games every single day of your life.
People I’ve never met often privately send me their stories about their experiences with WINZ, especially when I use social media to amplify my own. It happened this time too, like clockwork. I’ll call this person Holly because, much like me, she’s terrified of the potential consequences of speaking out against WINZ. In part, her story read,
I’ve been on WINZ for the majority of my adult life and seeing your tweets makes me feel so much less alone. I’m often afraid to even say anything because I feel like they are watching me at all times and will punish me for speaking out at all.
My benefit was up for renewal this week and I just decided not to renew it. I couldn’t face another phone call interrogating me about my disability which they still somehow don’t believe is bad enough after 10+ years. I have a chronic health condition which is exacerbated by stress and every time I have to be in contact with WINZ it puts me out of action for at least 2 weeks.
When Holly expressed she felt like WINZ was ‘watching her’ at all times, she wasn’t being paranoid. Besides that time the minister herself accessed and divulged the private information of two critics and said she was prepared to do it again, the Ministry of Social Development has been caught red-handed invasively and illegally spying on their own clients on more than one occasion. This includes going through third parties to access private information, including bank account information, personal texts, and direct messages. The Spinoff reported on these practices in 2019:
Before 2012 the MSD was, in most cases, required to ask beneficiaries for information directly, but the Privacy Commissioner’s report says in 2012 the MSD’s fraud investigation staff were told they could go straight to third parties.
This meant that investigators could collect highly sensitive information including text messages, domestic violence records, and banking records.
The Privacy Commissioner says this may not be legal, which is inherently a big deal. Breaking the law to prove someone else is breaking the law is … not legal, whether you’re a government agency or not.
This is beyond fifty shades of fucked up. MSD knows that anyone on income support payments cannot afford to engage in legal representation to fight any illegal behaviour committed against them. Moreover, there’s not one lawyer with legal aid status in Aotearoa/New Zealand who specifically represents people on income support payments in Aotearoa.
Equality before the law is a fundamental human right, yet, here we are.
The reality is that anyone who lives in poverty long enough knows your human rights are trampled on daily. Whether it’s a caseworker denying you necessities of life, for instance by wrongfully denying you a food grant or other entitlements such as the accommodation supplement (housing, too, is a human right), we have learned that we aren’t just second-class citizens. We barely qualify as people.
Yet I hold out hope.
To anyone surviving on income support, I say that there is a crack in the system and that’s how the light gets in. It appears every time when we refuse to be silent about the injustices we face in our dealing with the welfare system. It grows bigger when we speak our stories without apology and no matter how much our voices and hands shake. frankly, I’m fucking sick of being ‘sorry’ for being poor. Pre-Covid, it was reported that over 630,000 New Zealanders received some form of income support payment over the course of a year. With nearly $30 million of that support being spent weekly on the Accommodation Supplement, lining the pockets of our slumlords. That’s a lot of people suffering state sanctioned structural inequality and poverty. Yet there is also power in those numbers.
We are fighting back whether it’s folks like me founding unions that represent some of our lowest paid and insecure workers; or the incredible Wellington-based council housing grassroots movement IRRS 4 ALL, a tenant-led campaign fighting for income-related rent subsidy. People involved in this campaign have spoken out in the media about the realities of surviving on income support payments and in doing so have reminded us of our dignity, as people in poverty. Regardless of how you chose to tell your story what matters is that you tell it and that you never forget that, in the words of activist Brooke Tanley Pao,
liveable incomes are everyone’s birthright.
Image: Alisdaire Hickson