Equality of opportunity without equality of outcome

The one really big reason I don’t believe in market liberalism and the social meritocracy is that if it works at all, it only works for one generation. You know that old joke about how to make a small fortune on the stock market? (Start with a big fortune.) Kids born to rich parents just plain have more opportunities than kids born to poor parents. It’s not because of anything they did. They aren’t necessarily better. They’re just lucky. And when the same pattern repeats itself over and over through the generations, the difference becomes even more entrenched. I don’t think that all rich people are lazy and coast along on inherited wealth, plenty of them work hard, but so many of them refuse to recognise that working hard was not the only reason for their success. They’d rather assume that if you have less money it’s because you deserve less money.

The problem is that so many kids are born with less money, and it shapes their entire lives. Intergenerational poverty is about more than just not having much money – it has so many other effects.
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In more personal news

Moving back a bit from the bigger picture I had a big day yesterday with an early doctor’s visit and then a trip to the zoo (always good exercise in Wellington). I had a fairly thorough chat with my doctor with the main topic being finding somewhere other than the Phobic Trust as well as discussion of what else might be useful. I get the feeling he didn’t quite grasp the full impact of me saying I’ve had a rough couple of months and needed a medical certificate for dropping one of my papers because he made the comment that it would be good to consider doing part time study and part time work. Which it probably would be… in the future. Next year, next summer, next semester, I’m not sure which, but right now I’m definitely not up to it. Of course even if I were, it’s not really as easy as all that, is it? He doesn’t want me doing something menial and I don’t want to either (he gave specific examples of cleaning and Muffin Break, where I worked for a while about ten years ago) which restricts the options rather a lot because most of the more skilled jobs require qualifications which I don’t have yet. The absolute ideal would be part time work from home when I’m able – freelancing, maybe – but, really, how many jobs like that are there, and how many other people want them? Because I generally feel that one of the biggest barriers for me is that my ability to work is so unpredictable. That’s why I like doing extramural study, because I don’t have to worry about missing classes.

The other big barrier of course is balancing income – if I drop below full-time study I have to work enough to earn at least $250/week after tax. That means 7 papers over three semesters. I think it would be difficult to argue for limited full-time status on the grounds of illness if the reason I’m not studying full-time is so I can work as well. So to the above requirements you then have to add decent pay because even on $25/hr I’d have to work at least 12 hours or so, plus manage 1-2 (preferably 2) papers, which are all getting towards 300 level now, and that’s a lot more than I’m doing at the moment. And I think the most I’ve gotten at any job was something over $18/hr, which included holiday pay because we were technically casual staff. It would I think be more plausible to maintain the level of study I have planned and do a few hours a week of something, like 4-6 maybe, and get a lower student allowance rate. At that point though it becomes pretty dependant on location, because it quickly becomes not particularly worthwhile if I have to train and bus to and then bus and train from a 4 hour job.

Wrestling with the narrative

Sarah is on holiday in Melbourne, and suddenly the news cycle is being spammed with a press release from Paula Bennett about the thousands upon thousands of beneficiaries traveling overseas. Typically for a Bennett press release, there’s no real breakdown of the numbers. It’s just “these people are going overseas!” We’re apparently supposed to assume they’re all doing something dodgy, especially with the quotes about WINZ checking with Customs to catch people out, but there’s absolutely no evidence given for this whatsoever.

Personally I’m pretty sure that at least 95% of these people fall into (at least) one of the following categories:
- family or friends paid for a vacation for whatever reason
- it was already booked and paid for before they went on a benefit
- they’re traveling for an emergency or very special occasion
- they’re relocating to cut costs/look for work in a better market

I strongly doubt there are many beneficiaries who are paying for their own holidays out of their benefits.

HOWEVER. Even if they were, who cares? Remember, beneficiaries are not just people who don’t have a job but could be working. Not even the Jobseekers Allowance is only people on unemployment because they merged it with the sickness benefit. Some beneficiaries are on welfare their entire lives because they can’t work. But they get lumped in to this punitive authoritarian culture we have where they’re not allowed anything nice, ever, and they’re always assumed to be trying to get one over on the government. But to be honest, if a beneficiary is able to budget carefully enough to save up for a holiday, they fucking deserve it. That goes for all of them, sick/disabled or not. Because living on a benefit is fucking hard. The kind of constant stress it creates is dangerous and bad for you and having to spend all your energy on the basic necessities of living means it’s incredibly difficult to work to improve your situation. Getting away for a week or whatever and having some time to relax and clear your head is probably actually pretty damn helpful.

I feel like a lot of this really is down to jealousy. I see so many people who should know better saying that they work and they can’t afford whatever the big scandal is this time, and actually that’s kind of bullshit. They choose not to prioritise it. It’s not the same thing. And in this situation when the kerfuffle is over overseas travel, the assumption is that it’s something that’s 100% desirable when there are so many reasons where that would not be the case. Like going to a funeral, or to help with a sick relative. Or even something that seems good, like a wedding, but even if everything is paid for going overseas means getting your benefit cut but you still have to pay your bills, so that’s going to lead to some pretty fucking stressful times. If you would like to swap that with your comfortable secure income, seriously, get in touch, because I would fucking LOVE to. A full-time job at minimum wage is nearly $500 a week, let alone people who are earning enough to have a mortgage, and if it comes with no one obsessing over what I spend my money on and not having to get permission for the stupidest things, BRING IT ON. Unfortunately no one is ever going to take me up on this because despite the trappings of jealousy and resentment everyone knows on some level that being a beneficiary sucks.

Apparently some people think this is a good thing.
Edit: There’s a response article up on the Herald today that includes this quote:

“It proves nearly 10 per cent who have been job tested can afford to go overseas. I think a lot of the time someone else has paid, but it’s still what many New Zealanders would consider a luxury.” (emphasis mine)

Again, remember that the JSA includes sickness beneficiaries.

Surprise email!

I opened my email this evening and noticed a couple of things marked as spam. The first one was the really fucking annoying “Pfeizer” (I assume not actually Pfeizer) people who keep trying to sell me discount viagra, I get several of these a week at the moment. The other one had the subject line “Response to your email” and I decided to check it before deleting it, which was good because it was in fact a response to my email. From Paula Bennett! (one of her staff sends it with a pdf attachment, hence not recognising the name.) “What the fuck? When did I last email Paula Bennett?” I wondered.

Apparently, February 13th. I’d emailed her to ask for a couple of example budgets for people living on benefits. Apparently when I said “example budgets” she read “please tell me what people can get in benefit money”, because she did not in fact give me any example budgets, she just told me what different people can get in benefit money. Fuck, I could figure that out myself in an afternoon, but whatever. She did say that “In both the case of couples and individuals, the amount of benefit paid out is intended to be sufficient to meet basic living costs. If this is not enough for the particular individual, couple or family, additional financial assistance is available, such as the Accommodation Supplement to assist with rent, board or home-ownership costs, Disability Allowance to assist with costs arising from a disability and Temporary Additional Support to assist with other essential costs that cannot be met from income.” Just bear that in mind – AS, DA and TAS are specifically mentioned as additional financial assistance, that can be applied for if other income isn’t enough.

Here’s the three examples:

A single parent with a 5 year old and a 14 year old living in Manurewa paying at least $340 in rent:
Sole Parent Support: $295.37
Family Tax Credit: $157.17
Accommodation Supplement: $165
Temporary Additional Support: $14.86
TOTAL: $632.40

A single parent with a 5 year old and a 14 year old living in Manurewa paying at least $340 in rent who has a full-time minimum wage job (ie 40 hours at $13.75):
Net wages: $463.25
Family Tax Credit: $157
In-work Tax Credit: $60
Accommodation Supplement: $153
TOTAL: $833.25

A single person aged 25 years living in Manurewa with rent of at least $150:
Jobseeker Support: $206.21
Accommodation Supplement: $69.21
TOTAL: $275.21

Already you can see that in the first example the total figure of $632.40 relies not only on the accommodation supplement but also temporary additional support. They do not generally advertising temporary additional support as something you’re meant to rely on as part of your income. It’s supposed to be the “you’re a complete failure” (there’s actually an aura of shame that clings to the very application form I think) money if you need to, like, pay off a loan or something, you know, temporary.

Not being a parent I asked on Twitter if it was actually feasible to raise two kids on that if you’re paying $340-$400 (more on that in a moment) in rent, and was told yes, just barely. It would basically be the same way I’m living, by budgeting very, very carefully. The working parent gets $200 extra, but is it just me or did anyone else have the impression that full-time minimum wage was kind of more than $463?? Obviously that’s after tax, but still, that’s really not much money.

Anyway, after looking at those of course my next stop was the TradeMe rental section. After ascertaining that Manurewa was in fact in [South] Auckland, I looked up rents there. There are a few two bedroom places listed for around $340 – $380, one or two for even less than that. In total there are 11 listed. Three bedroom places I think the cheapest I saw was about $360, and I saw a couple up around $470. Most of them were in the upper $300s, so if the 5 and 14 year old are different sexes and want/need separate rooms, that’s going to be a lot harder.

As for a single person with $150 to pay in rent, you can do it. You need to split a place, of course, but I’ve just listed the prices for 3 bedrooms and if you go up to 5 or 6 you could get away with paying around $100 each in some of them. 1 bedroom you’re looking at nearly $300, 2 bedrooms again I just listed – between $150-$200 split.

I guess it was sort of an informative reply, if completely not what I asked for.

Clawing back

This time last week it was like the world was ending. There are certain things I’ve gone over in my head a lot, trying to figure out how to explain them to people who haven’t experienced it. I should be able to; there’s a strong literary thread in my family, I wrote a lot during high school and attended the Christchurch Young Writers’ School. (That might not be what it was called, I’ve been out of school for a while.) But I’ve tried, and in this respect having a breakdown is much like the Christchurch earthquakes – I can string words together but it all comes out as cliches that do nothing to really convey the complicated mess that it is. After the earthquakes there was too much emotion, all happening at once and none of it making much sense. During a deep depression there’s not enough. They’ve actually studied this, interestingly. People who suffer damage in the part of their brain responsible for emotion start to have difficulty making decisions. It makes sense if you think about it – if you have no emotional investment, you might think you’d become more logical, but how do you assess which outcome is better if you have no metric for deciding what is “good”? And that’s sort of what emotion is, a lot of the time. And when you’re depressed to that level, nothing is good. There is no ideal outcome, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. It’s hopelessness. I felt like schoolwork was impossible, I cried a lot. It was pretty much my default time-killer, really. Staring out the window at the empty yard gotten too unfulfilling even for my apathy? Might as well cry for a while.

By mid-to-late last week I was starting to get a bit of myself back. It’s hard work. I had to force myself through a lot of it, particularly dealing with the consequences for uni. I had help – I’d spent a couple of hours clicking through the Massey website looking for the most appropriate people to reach out to and couldn’t ever work up the momentum to actually email any of them, so in the end someone else emailed someone on my behalf and forwarded it to me. That worked. Once there was a point of contact in my inbox I only had to reply, and it didn’t matter if it was objectively the best person or whatever. In the end I dropped a paper, and then I worked as hard as I could to finish the assignments due for the two papers remaining. I will be the first to admit that those two assignments were not my best work. I think I actually put the wrong student id number on one of them, and I’ve been typing that thing out over and over for two or three years.

Don’t get the wrong idea when I say I worked as hard as I could, though. This isn’t the study habits of a diligent high school student trying to pad out their college application in America where you need a little more than a C average in Bursary (or whatever the NCEA equivalent is) to get into a decent school. I didn’t feel…. connected to it, really, like I have done in the past. That feeling that, yeah, I’m working on an assignment, I’m applying my learning and preparing for the exam if there is one and one day I’m going to use this knowledge or the experience of gaining it in the job market. I like most of my classes and I’m pretty used to that feeling. This was more that I consciously knew I had to get the work done, but I didn’t feel like it was very urgent. Not more urgent than staring out the window at the empty yard. The word vacuous comes to mind to describe that state, not so much a fuzziness as a general disconnection from reality.

Okay, here’s a metaphor. I have an Asus Transformer, the screen slides into a dock on the keyboard and clicks into place and lo, my tablet now looks like a laptop. Around the little sockets on the bottom of the actual tablet bit the plastic casing is of course thinner than it normally is, because it can’t cover that socket, right? So for the last couple of months, around one of the sockets the plastic had cracked at one end and poked out a bit unless there was pressure holding it in place, which there is when it’s docked. Recently I began having trouble docking it though. It slid in, but it didn’t click like it normally does, like when you’re doing up your seatbelt (make it click!), and if I wasn’t careful I’d knock it out of place. I could push it in but then it would be out of alignment on some other edge. Eventually I realised that the little bit of plastic had come off at the other end as well and it was sitting inside the dock on the keyboard, preventing the tablet from getting in far enough to make a proper connection. It was recognising the keyboard, I could type fine, it used the extra battery just like normal, but jog it the wrong way or accidentally kick it or something and nope, no longer connected. Sorry.

Obviously this allegory does not go much further. I can’t just tip my keyboard unit up so the plastic falls out and everything locks together again the way it was meant to. But it might be a little easier to understand than the other words I know, things like depersonalisation and derealisation and dissociation (of the three, probably derealisation is the most accurate, though it’s really meant to describe something slightly different.)

I submitted the second assignment today and I still have reading to catch up on. I actually had done a little bit of reading during those five awful days, because it was a way to pass the time and didn’t actually require much effort and, most importantly, the binders were right there. But I’m still behind in both papers and I’ll have to work on that this week. Right now I’m a little burned out for the day though, I’ve been reading too many articles and thesis abstracts and trying to assess them on a critical level to at least reach a level maybe vaguely acceptable in a third year paper. Mostly I just want to sleep for a long time. I don’t have many of the extra strength sedatives that might accomplish that left, though. I had to break into them last week after spending half an hour on the phone with a student advisor in the morning when my flatmate had some friends over in the evening. It sounds stupid, but hearing their voices, and particularly when they all would all laugh and the volume shot up, was unbearable. I ended up clinging to my pillow trembling, chest hurting from the way my heart sped up anytime a noise came that was louder than the general background levels. And more crying. After the drugs kicked in I was able to briefly duck into the kitchen to shove some ice cream and canned peaches in a bowl, after one had left and another went to pick up their dinner order and I only had to face three people. I almost couldn’t do that, but when you don’t eat enough as it is, occasionally you get to the point where you know you need to get some calories into you as soon as is feasible. And I didn’t know how late they’d be staying.

The struggle to convey an experience is pervasive, I think. Mental illness is terrifying because it’s isolating. If you could only find a way to describe it, it might lose some of its power over you, so you grope around for words that will tap into… something… you don’t really know what. A common spirit? Empathy? A quiet, disquieting feeling that haunts everyone when it’s dark and you’re all alone?

Maybe it doesn’t, though. You can’t know until you try to explain and see the reactions – whether people look at you afterwards with understanding, or whether they pull away like insanity is catching.

No job for businessmen

There’s this ongoing myth in public discourse that being a successful businessman means you have what it takes to successfully run a country. I see a lot of problems with this, to the point where I’d almost argue that the very opposite is true – that it makes you potentially bad at running a country. Countries and businesses are just inherently different structures on so many levels. A company may not even own the land its offices are based on, whereas a country covers a specific delineated territory. A business’ main purpose is generally to increase profits (though some prioritise doing so in a manner consistent with social justice or environmentally friendly policies – often recognising, however, that doing this is good for business too), while a country usually expects its government to improve the lives of its citizens.

To me the most important feature is embedded in that latter point of difference. A company does not have a fixed population. If it needs to reduce running costs, it can fire people. A country cannot do that. The only act that’s even vaguely similar is deporting people, which requires specific circumstances – normally that they’re citizens of another country who’ve committed a crime, or that they’ve committed a crime in another jurisdiction serious enough for an extradition request, or that they’ve overstayed a visa. In theory people made redundant from a company will go on to find other jobs, but whether they do or not isn’t a concern of the executives. In a country, people who lose their jobs can’t just be ignored. Improving people’s lives and increasing profits are completely different goals with completely different executions, the former being infinitely more complicated as you first attempt to define what improving lives means and then attempt to find policy that will interact with pre-existing conditions in such a way as to provide a good outcome. Ideally reducing beneficiary numbers means creating more jobs, not simply finding ways to get them off welfare.

But that’s what a fiscally right wing government does. They have a disproportionate number of ex-business people or people who expect to take up a cushy director job when they retire from politics or business owners and investors. They know about money, not people. And so we get trains made cheaply overseas that are riddled with asbestos, funding cuts to programs that pay off in the long term, policies aimed at reducing waiting lists for housing or surgeries. It’s all about cutting numbers and it’s not what a country is about.

What is fucking happening

So I went to log into my WINZ account to see if I had an example letter for Sarah to look at and apparently they’ve updated their log in system again. The new steps I have to take follow:

1. Load the main page.
2. Click “my account”.
3. Click “my account” again.
4. Enter my log in name and password (one-factor authentication).
5. Verify my mobile number is correct.
6. Enter a temporary passcode that they text to my mobile (two-factor authentication).
7. Enter my client number and one-time password (three-factor authentication… maybe four? I don’t know if this counts as one or two extra factors).

From what I can TELL I only need to do step 7 this time because I “haven’t logged in before [under this system]” but that still means I have to do it. To get a one-time password, I have to call their 0800 number or visit a service centre with identification. If I call the 0800 number, I can get it automatically if my voice is registered, otherwise I have to identify myself (probably give my client number, date of birth and address), tell them my mobile number and email, and tell them the number on my current ID – community services card if I have one, driver’s license or 18+ card otherwise.

Seriously, for fuck’s sake. There is less security than this on my online banking. Even if you ignore the steps to GET your one-time password, you need a total of two log ins and three passwords, two of which are disposable ones.

Considering that for several months you could “hack” WINZ by using the File -> Open command on their public computers, I’m sure they worry about security, but this is really just a little bit over the top.

Making the hard calls

I mentioned that I was in touch with someone from Massey; this happened very quickly after I started to recover from last week’s crash. Luckily someone else set it up, because the Massey website is enormous and poorly designed and makes me want to cry in a corner far more than it makes me want to figure out exactly who the appropriate person to contact is and then email them out of the blue.

So, yesterday I had a 25 minute phone call with this student rep. And if you know me, you know I HATE phones. I actively refuse to make phone calls if I have any kind of choice and if I get a call without expecting it odds are about 50/50 on whether I’ll answer. But we managed some level of productivity despite my neuroses. She wanted to get a better idea of exactly what kind of support I have up here and what problems/diagnoses I actually have and then made lots of suggestions. I managed to write some down, so hopefully my notes will still make sense later. I dropped one of my papers and she said she’d check with someone else whether I would still qualify as full time without it since I study over summer, and she’s going to send me some forms for fees to be carried over, which means that I could take that paper again next year without paying for it again. I’ll have to take those forms to the doctor, but I need to go soon anyway for a new scrip. I’ll also ask him if there’s any particularly good places through PHO I could get counseling for free; if not, Massey lady will hook me up with student health at the Wellingon campus.

(I did get an email shortly after the call – I am still full-time, just. You need to take 8 papers a year, which usually means 4/semester, but 3 over summer means 2+3 the rest of the year is enough.)

Here is how phone calls affect me for the rest of the day: after a while, every single noise was stressing me. The cicadas. Some guy doing yard work with a power tool. A bunch of my flatmate’s friends came round and it was nightmarish; I could hear them talking but they laugh louder than they talk, so that set off my heart going faster than usual. I ended up huddled at the end of my bed trembling until I heard one visitor leave and one go to pick up dinner. That left flatmate and one other person, which I decided was my best shot to get something to eat and some juice to take my lorazepam with.

If I end up in a sharehouse, I feel I need a bar fridge. Leaving my room to get food is just too hard when I’m struggling.


I’m not sure what wakes me, because I’m already conscious when I hear a noise that could be my stomach or could be a door opening. I decide it’s the latter when it’s followed by footsteps heading for the bathroom, and a few seconds later the baby starts crying softly. It’s not loud at all, she’s only a week old and still before her due date, but something knots up in my solar plexus. Sounds that recur irregularly make me anxious, my body freezes on a precipice every time they stop waiting for them to start again. If they were only predictable it would be okay. I’m wide awake and thinking about the unanswered email from a student support person and the arch lever files of study material on the floor by my bed, and decide to see if it’s worth getting up yet.

It’s 3.35.

I settle back down. My flatmate goes back to bed and the baby goes quiet. Now the noise really is my stomach – I’m a grazer, eating small amounts throughout the day, and it’s been a while since dinner. Inexplicably, hunger makes my back hurt. I made biscuits the day before and they’re still in a tupperware container nearby, so eventually I grab one to tide me over until breakfast.

I close my eyes and drag the top of the duvet into the hollow between my head and shoulder. I’m not sleepy at all now but I try to clear my mind and hope it works. After a while I concede it does not.

It’s 4.17.

Outside, a ruru hoots. True morning is a long way away.

Such overwhelm

Usually it helps me to write. At the moment it’s hard, because to write about situations and choices I have to think about them on some level and I don’t really want to. This is about the third day I’ve been lying in bed knowing time is slipping away from me. Even if I change nothing, I have to stay on top of my schoolwork, and with three assignments due in the next two and a half weeks I fall behind every day. I’ve done some on the easiest – just today I wrote three definitions of social research terminology! I don’t think that’s exactly the level of commitment they have in mind for the course.

If I drop classes to lighten the load it takes that much longer to finish. The semesters stretch out ahead of me for years. Plus, I’d have to arrange limited full-time status to keep the student allowance that is the pittance paying my bills.

If there was a single position, a person, who could do all the contacting and negotiating and advocating, who could deal with mental health teams and WINZ and HNZ and Massey, instead of having so many different agencies either funding themselves or contracted to the government to cover niche areas in a jigsaw pattern with thousands of pieces, I would still find it nearly impossible to connect with them. That’s how people fall through the cracks. I have to be well enough to get help in the first place. Well, I tried that. All I got was a complete lack of fucks. Now I just wish there was a way to regroup and rest without having to rely on support as fickle as the government’s, because they can never be trusted not to withdraw it when you’re at your most vulnerable. If that sounds bitter I guess it is. No one wants to live like this. But there is no market solution to supporting people who can’t work. Even $250/wk adds up fast and there’s no way for a third party to get a return on that investment, unless perhaps you bring back indentured servitude and see if the temporarily ill outweigh the permanently disabled. Surely we can rely on the goodwill of the corporates to make sure they don’t cut off the low hanging fruit.