Important questions from an advocate at the coalface

In her work as an advocate who supports beneficiaries with their Work and Income (WINZ) appointments, author Pip Colgan sees many heartbreaking cases where families living in poverty have difficulty accessing the support they need to get by. Many miss out on the basics, while others are going hungry to make sure children are fed. A lack of income to make healthy choices means that children's nutritional needs are compromised, and when an unexpected bill arrives, families are forced to take on debt. Meanwhile, missing a WINZ appointment may result in a sanction that reduces the budget for food even further. Pip asks why - why are we punishing those who need help the most?

Another young woman. As she sits down she burst into tears. "I've been too scared to come to WINZ." She had missed an appointment with a caseworker as she had a sick child whom she had taken to the doctor. She had been unable to contact Work and Income at the time. Being late for, or missing an appointment brings a sanction. Being sanctioned means one's benefit is reduced by 50% or more and not restored until a caseworker is satisfied that certain conditions have been met. People are usually sanctioned before any questions are asked. They find out this has happened when the money they expect doesn’t appear in their account. The amount of time wasted by people trying to have their benefit reinstated when it should not have been sanctioned in the first place is completely unacceptable.

Day in, day out, people are not told what they are entitled to or how they can change their situation.This woman came into the office to find out why her money had been halved. She has been told that to enable the sanction to be removed she has to provide a medical certificate from her doctor saying her child was sick. Her doctor refused to provide the medical certificate retrospectively. What is she to do? Nobody tells her that all she needs to do is provide proof from the doctor that she was at the practice at the time in question. She and her two young daughters have been living on $8 for food a week for five weeks. By the time rent, power and repayments have been taken out this is all that is left. All she can afford is dried noodles. This all raises questions which are critical:

Why hasn’t she been told that she can get an emergency food grant?

How can those young brains develop properly without nourishment?

How can those children function in school on such a diet?

And critically, how can a mother be in good state to parent well with such worry and such inadequate food?

When she can no longer go on this way the woman comes back to WINZ where she encounters an advocate and is advised that it would be sufficient for her to have proof from the doctor that she had attended with her sick child. The caseworker agrees and tells her that once she has this, her sanction will be removed and she will be refunded the money. Why couldn’t the caseworker just phone the medical centre to confirm the appointment? In the meantime, she is given an emergency food grant to tide her over. She is overjoyed to think of her children being excited when they come home from school to find food in the cupboard. "They'll think it's Christmas."

All this stress could have been avoided if only the woman had been asked why she had missed her appointment.As we wait for the grant to be approved, the woman talks to me. She tells me she knows lots of people who are too scared to come in to WINZ. Then she tells me she spent a year in emergency housing. It was terrible never knowing where she was going to be living from one week to the next. She and her two children got moved more often than she could possibly remember, and from one side of the harbour bridge to the other.

This is not an unusual story. Everyday in WINZ offices all around the country stories such as this will be heard. We have to change this.

  • People need to be lifted out of poverty by paying everyone an adequate income that meets all their needs. Because benefits are so low, people today are constantly getting into debt either from WINZ or loan sharks just to keep their heads above water.
  • Remove sanctions of any kind - any sanction on a benefit punishes the children in that family unit.
  • Rental reform - landlords must be required to provide healthy, safe, stable housing.