Fighting for a fairer welfare system

Vanessa Cole, Co-ordinator for Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP) spoke at CPAG’s launch of our new report “Further fraying of the welfare safety net”  in December, about her experience working with families who have been sorely let down by New Zealand’s crumbling welfare system, and found engaging with which compounded the stresses of their poverty. This commentary is published with our gratitude for Vanessa’s contribution to our event, and admiration for her mahi in supporting those most in need.

Auckland Action Against Poverty is an organisation which knows too well the consequences of a welfare system which has been systemically attacked over the last forty years by successive governments and an economic ideology based on the punishment of the poor and accumulation of wealth by the rich.

We worked with over 5000 beneficiaries, unemployed and low-waged workers this year to ensure they were receiving their full and legal entitlements from Work and Income. We do this not as a form of charity, but as an act of solidarity. We also engage in campaigns, actions, research and media to highlight and resist neoliberal welfare reform and the war on the poor.

For many of the people and whānau we work with, after bills and rent are paid, there is not enough left to live on, let alone to live with dignity. Benefit levels remain low as part of a punitive ideology to coerce the unemployed into low-waged and insecure work, for the benefit of employers.

Over the nine years National were in power, the emphasis was on on reducing benefit dependency, however even Government reports have shown that people move between employment and unemployment frequently due to the precarious nature of work. This apparent reduction in benefit dependency occurs alongside sanctions and stand-down periods which place people and whānau in further hardship.

The work-focussed agenda of the past 30 years has failed to increase the wellbeing of low-income people. The unemployed are not the cause of unemployment and with a job market characterised by economic and technological shifts, we need to be thinking more about unconditional welfare payments (proven to increase well-being) instead of punishing low-income people for a crisis in the economic system itself.

Low-benefit rates and a punitive sanctioning system is made worse by the housing crisis. Many people who come to see us who are homeless are stuck in a trap set up by our systems to fail them. In order to continue living in emergency accommodation such as motels without getting into debt, people must prove they are looking for alternative accommodation. Many of these people are on an ever growing waitlist for state and social housing. Private rentals are too expensive and private landlords discriminate against beneficiaries. Once they find a private rental they are often told by Work and Income that they won’t get bond because they won’t be able to afford the rent.

When people go into Work and Income, they are made to feel humiliated. The toxic culture of Work and Income is a result of policies which have been outlined in this report. These policies are setting up our people and whānau to fail. People are denied their basic entitlements on a daily basis.

Every Friday we are at Manurewa and Clendon Work and Income offices where we see 130 people each week, mainly for emergencies such as food. We are consistently asked by the Ministry why these people are not going to their own offices. And we consistently respond that these people are turned away from their offices, and know that the only way they will get their entitlements is if they have an advocate with them.

We need to change this toxic culture and build a culture in Work and Income based on respect and redistribution.

Last year AAAP launched a campaign to Stop the Sanctions. The campaign originally focussed on removing section 70A from the Social Security Act, a sanction of $28 per week per child on parents who do not name the other parent on the birth certificate. Out of the 13,000 people impacted by this sanction, 98% are women and 52% are Māori, defining this policy as both racist and sexist, financial punishment for parents. The new Government has agreed to remove this sanction and we are taking this as a small win. The Labour Government are not committing to removing all sanctions, only excessive ones.

We need to stop all sanctions.

Child poverty comes from adult poverty and cannot be thought about in isolation. We are not going to deal with poverty without first acknowledging its roots, and demonstrating that poverty is not the consequence of individual choices but instead an economic and political choice of the elite and the governments that support them.

AAAP believes in increasing benefit levels to a liveable amount. Increasing benefit levels will acknowledge all the unpaid work that unemployed people do – childcare, care work, creative work, work in their communities. If we are going to talk about work we need to expand its definition. Increasing benefit levels will also put pressure on employers to improve the condition and pay of employment instead of holding the coercive power to exploit beneficiaries.

Quotes from people we have worked with, that highlight the toxic culture of Work and Income:

Māori/Samoan, sole-parent with one child said:

“Many people for some reason or another find themselves in situations unable to support themselves. Whether it is due to illness, injury, or unemployment. You are then exposed to a system that is riddled with discriminatory policies that punish people for aging, for being injured, for being victims of the wider systemic flaws that impact individuals on a micro level.”

Gender Diverse, Pākehā person on Supported Living Payment said:

“Raise all benefits to living wage standards, remove medical certificate requirements for long-term sick and disabled, no more sanctions for any reason, no more benefits reduced for having a partner, no more cutting off benefits, a non-pitiful Accommodation Supplement, free health care and housing for beneficiaries, free public transport and study, no limit on free dental or medical allowances, no limit on food grants or disability allowances, raise amount eligible to earn before benefit cuts off.”

Beneficiaries we spoke to imagine a different welfare system and are willing to fight for it, it is up to those in power to actually listen to their ideas. The current situation with welfare was not inevitable and is not permanent, not only can it be changed but change is necessary. It is completely achievable to have a world without poverty, where all people – employed and unemployed – have an income that is enough to live on; where everyone in Aotearoa-New Zealand lives in dignity; where we have enough state housing so that all people who need a house has access to one with secure tenure. A world where work is not characterised by insecurity and low pay, but characterised by the value you contribute to society. Where being a parent, a caregiver, a community member, a creative, is valued. Where we all have a share in the wealth that we, and those that have come before us, produce. Where wealth is not held in the hands of a few wealthy elite but is for everyone to share. This world is entirely possible, we just need to fight for it.