Demanding compassion in welfare

By Sam Orchard
We Are Beneficiaries

In mid-July 2017, Metiria Turei, the co-leader of the New Zealand Green party, spoke at the Green Party AGM about her time on social welfare in the mid 1990s, navigating finances and having to lie to Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) in order to have enough money to survive. “This is what being on the benefit did to me – it made me poor and it made me lie,” she said.

She used her experiences to speak out about how the social welfare system, a system set up to be a safety net, was broken and needed to be mended. She spoke about a woman who committed suicide after being falsely accused of fraud and chased by WINZ. She spoke about the 200,000 New Zealand children living in poverty. She spoke about how much this was costing New Zealanders, and how important it is to care for our most vulnerable. Within the month she had resigned as the co-leader, because the scrutiny on her family was “unbearable“.

In the wake of her resignation, a group of artists began creating art sharing their experiences as beneficiaries in the hope of “continuing the conversation Turei started – demanding a more compassionate welfare system”. The group, We Are Beneficiaries, began sharing their images online and were met with a huge response. The project has amassed more than 5,000 likes on its Facebook page, and 1,800 followers on twitter.

We are that group of artists. We Are Beneficiaries.

Over the last four months of 2017, we collected over 200 stories of people who are currently accessing, or have accessed social welfare in New Zealand.

A picture has emerged of the social welfare system lacking compassion and care.

Many of these stories illustrate a dehumanising, cruel and broken social welfare system in Aotearoa/New Zealand. We have shared stories of people being bullied and mocked for crying in the office, people being questioned about whether they were “sure it was rape”, and people leaving the WINZ office suicidal. These stories are by no means one-offs or extreme cases.

Once posted online, people engaged with and shared these stories across social media. Each image provoked discussion and (too) often readers commented that they had experienced something similar.

The stories reflect experiences beyond just that of the original storyteller. A picture has emerged of the social welfare system lacking compassion and care, a system that doesn’t allow people to find work that is suitable or sustainable, a culture of cruelty and judgement, and a system that is confusing and hard to navigate. We’ve found that the system impacts people’s mental health significantly, it is disempowering, and really frightening to engage with. We’ve also found that the system keeps people in poverty; it doesn’t provide beneficiaries with enough to live on, let alone enough to live with dignity. Sanctions and errors mean that beneficiaries are often left with uncertainty and instability. People of colour, people with disabilities and single mothers are some of the worst affected.

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Turei managed to ensure that welfare system reform was part of the conversation during the election. When she resigned, We Are Beneficiaries continued that conversation. Independent research shows that poverty and homelessness were key issues for the public at the New Zealand General Election in October 2017. A new government was elected, a coalition of the Labour Party and New Zealand First with a confidence and supply agreement with the Green Party. This signalled the potential for change, particularly as the latter agreement contained a promise to “overhaul the welfare system”, remove excessive sanctions and review welfare entitlement to enable recipients “to live in dignity and participate in their communities”.

In December 2017, We Are Beneficiaries compiled a report with those first 200 stories and presented them at the New Zealand Parliament. The Associate Minister of Social Development Peeni Henare and Under-Secretary to the Minister of Justice Jan Logie accepted this report on behalf of their colleagues, including the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Our voices must continue to be heard and our recommendations followed, to create real positive change for beneficiaries in New Zealand.

The report themed the stories, highlighted issues, such as lack of compassion by staff, broken processes and a culture of fear and sanctions, and offered recommendations to create a better welfare system in New Zealand. Our recommendations include:

  • Provide mandatory training, supervision and mental health support for all WINZ office staff that improves empathy, cultural competence and communication skills. This must include an understanding of implicit bias and racism.
  • Review and improve organisational culture so that it is easier for staff to do the right thing for the people they are working with. This should be done with people who use WINZ services and their whānau (family) so that it is designed around their needs and their experiences are learned from.
  • Create incentives for staff to provide quality services and not targets about reducing number of beneficiaries.
  • Ensure that WINZ staff are only offering secure employment options.
  • Create policies and practices that enable sustainable employment situations, for example, valuing part-time paid work as part of a person’s wider work and family life.
  • Stop the sanctions and obligations.

While the report was received with thanks, we have yet to hear back from any of the ministers about the implementation of any of these recommendations. Minister Clark, however, has been in contact with us asking us to participate in the government’s Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction services. The treatment of beneficiaries has remained part of the public discourse. And in late April 2018, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the “promised overhaul” of welfare services, including implementing culture change, was “imminent“.

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We Are Beneficiaries don’t want the new government to sweep these issues under the carpet. We don’t want them to continue on in the same trajectory as the previous government. We want them to keep this conversation at the forefront of their minds as they develop their plans for the next three years. To make this happen, our voices must continue to be heard and our recommendations followed, to create real positive change for beneficiaries in New Zealand.

If you would like to read more of our stories you can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.