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.

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.

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.

Cost-effective tech

I’m pretty slack. I’ve let the people with more-or-less perfect hearing talk ALL DAY about suitable accommodations for the profoundly deaf and what’s most cost-effective. Which is probably as it should be, since all of them know far more than people who are actually hard of hearing.

If on the off-chance anyone DOESN’T know what technology for long-distance oral communication is like (I don’t know, apparently this is something everyone learns in kindergarten maybe?) and wants to hear from someone who’s actually looked up alternate ways of talking to people that don’t involve normal conversation through a phone, you’re in luck! Because I (*drumroll*) have DONE THAT.

Now, obviously there is your standard written communication – the fastest being email. This is what I prefer, personally, but clearly it wouldn’t be appropriate for doing a radio interview. You need to be able to actually hear that. However, in theory the host could write a list of questions and email them to Mojo, record himself asking them, and get her to record her answers and send them. Then the radio station would have to carefully stitch all the audio files together and adjust the background noise and volumes and things like that so it sounded like Dr Frankenstein wasn’t responsible for its creation. The downside of this is that most hour long radio interviews aren’t just questions and answers. They’re conversations. Which means they have to be able to respond to each other. I guess they could do one bit at a time, but you’d have the same costs for editing it properly and it would take FOREVER.

Some people do radio interviews over the phone, and while that doesn’t really work for someone who’s profoundly deaf, it’s true that there are systems for deaf people to use phones. Specifically, a relay service with a translator in the middle who generally types (I believe – I have never actually used this service, only looked into what was available, and didn’t think it would be suitable for me) the responses to the deaf caller and reads their answer back to the hearing caller. This also takes longer than standard conversation, plus it wouldn’t be Mojo’s voice, unless I guess they had the translator only translate one way. However the radio station would still have to edit out the pauses between questions and their responses, which again, costs money, plus the translator needs to get paid for the over an hour that they’re sitting their transcribing everything the radio host says. I have no idea what the operating costs of this service are, but I imagine they’re paying people a decent wage because they have to be extremely reliable and extremely honest, and quite possibly adept at understanding all sorts of accents (including English spoken by someone who’s never actually heard it spoken before), plus of course they need to maintain the technological set up required.

Then there’s everyone’s favourite means of catching up with their family on the other side of the world, Skype. This can be ruled out straight away. It’s just not high quality enough to be able to lipread the person on the other end. The only way it would be feasible would be ridiculous workarounds like having the host write everything he says down on a huge pad of paper and hold it up to the camera for her to read.

There’s also automatic transcription software, which some people with perfectly fine hearing might have used before themselves – I believe Google has it as an option if you use their phone services and get voicemail. However at this stage most software is either affordable and REALLY REALLY BAD, or really expensive and only really bad. To be at all accurate you most likely need to attune it so that it recognises the individual way you speak and how you pronounce words, which is useful if you’re only using it to transcribe what you’re saying (ie, having the software take dictation instead of hiring a secretary to do it), not so much for figuring out what the radio host from a community radio station is saying. In addition to the costs of the software, either they have to air it live and prepare for on air confusion, or again, edit it.

Finally, there’s good old fashioned face to face conversation. This is easy to air live, no need to edit out long pauses or equalise audio quality. There’s no problems with video quality being high enough to lipread. If there’s any confusion it’s much faster to clear up because you can rely on facial expressions and body language as well as quick response time. Because we’re much more used to it, it also produces a much more natural sounding conversation that isn’t stilted and awkward. Yes, it does involve transport costs, but there are no other hidden costs and it gives the best quality product as well as being easier for the people involved.

See, communicating using all those other workarounds is actually pretty damn stressful. I mean, I’m speaking for myself here obviously. I’m not Mojo, I don’t know if it’s stressful for her. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was, but I wouldn’t be that surprised if it wasn’t either because my issues with audio also come with mental health problems and are related to processing, not receiving the sound in the first place. (It’s just like a hundred times harder when it involves speakers. I don’t know why, but when I’m buying multi trip train tickets at the Wellington stations my brain can’t even connect the sound coming out of the speakers to the person standing in front of me. All I get is *background noise* and *silent person moving their lips*. It’s easier over the phone, but I’ve built up such an aversion that I’ll do pretty much anything to avoid doing it anyway.) And when it comes to the radio host, it’s most likely something he’s never done before at all. Having to communicate in a brand new way, knowing that people are listening to you do it and judging your performance, is kind of off-putting and it’s just a lot easier to avoid that if at all possible. And let’s be real here. It’s not like she was flying to inner Mongolia or something. Flights to Masterton and back are not that expensive – someone calculated it as 0.73 seconds of welfare expenditure, let alone other costs. Considering she was speaking on disability issues, something that she’s uniquely placed for, and a sector that gets shut out of politics on a major level, this is really not an unreasonable cost we’re talking about. I’m not even going to compare it to other things that taxpayer money has covered – other people have done quite a bit of that, and while they’re incredibly illuminating, I don’t think they’re even necessary. This is just plain not that big a deal.

A practical view of the welfare system

So yesterday the Herald printed a piece written by Damien Grant, a libertarian liquidator who once served jail time for fraud. (I don’t think jail time in and of itself is relevant – the fact that it was for fraud is.) Apparently he used to be a fiscal conservative but changed his mind sometime over the last three years so there are inconsistencies in his views over time. But regardless, the piece he had published yesterday is basically an argument that we should go soft on tax fraud because they contribute to the economy, while beneficiary fraud should be punished with jail time. For fun, he’s also written about conditions in jail and how much it sucks, but apparently it doesn’t suck so much that people trying to survive shouldn’t be put there.

Aside from the bizarre counterintuitiveness of his argument – yes, high income people pay more income tax, because they get most of the income – however, if they’re tax frauds then by the very definition of the term they’re not contributing – it made me think about the money we spend on social safety nets and how to get the best return on it.

In my opinion, there are two options that don’t involve wasting money on “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff” stuff like emergency healthcare, court time, prison sentences, addiction services, lost productivity or theft from workplaces, etc. (Yes, shock! Some beneficiaries work.)

The first option, which I obviously prefer, is a comprehensive welfare system that allows people to live at least at a basic but affordable level. None of this calculating the minimum you need to live on and cut that by ten percent and every so often increase for inflation, which is allegedly how they do it, but an actual look at what the bare minimum you need to live on, and then maybe increase it by ten percent, so people can slowly save money in case of emergencies like cars breaking down or sickness or repairing an appliance. And combine that with more of a discount with the community services card on essentials like health care, and dental care, etc. And build the state housing system back up again so people don’t have to live in slums. Basically, all the preventative stuff that allows people to contribute to society with a minimum of downtime or slowly wasting away or constant stress that makes them sick.

The second option is low or no welfare. However, for this to actually save money, you have to follow through. You can’t combine it with public healthcare that treats the inevitable illnesses and health problems at low or no cost, otherwise the meagre amounts you save on individual welfare are going to be lost when the healthcare budget balloons. You’ll also need more money for the justice system and the education system to deal with the dysfunctional, desperate people the system produces. If you want to reduce welfare below livable lessons, the only logical step is to reduce everything else as well and let people die in the street. There’ll still be a cost to the justice system, and you’ll probably need to fund corpse collectors and pauper’s funerals/graves. You’ll also probably end up with a lot of communicable diseases which won’t always confine themselves to the poorest of the poor, particularly since some will inevitably get jobs and go to work outside their neighbourhoods. I’m not sure exactly how much you’d have to cut to bring the combination of whatever welfare you do keep and the clean up costs to the lowest level, but I’m sure a good economist could figure it out.

Ki ōku whakaaro though, anything between those two systems is a waste of money based purely on ideology. I mean, those two options are still based on ideology too, because you have to decide whether a society in which as many people as possible are in a position to contribute is more or less important to you than a society in which the government spends as little as possible on social services. But it’s a pretty basic fact that money spent on prevention of social problems caused by poverty is going to save you the increased amount of money you’d have to spend cleaning up social problems caused by poverty, and the only way to get around that is to dump the emergency stop gap measures that cost so much money.