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.
Continue reading

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.

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.

Collisions

 

 

These are my study materials for semester one. You can’t quite tell from the angle but it’s almost a foot high – the bottom package is the size of the middle one and the stuff in the binder combined. Overall it’s over 3000 pages.

My flatmate is 34 weeks pregnant and will likely be premature. Her midwife wants her to be at least 36 weeks, so, sometime in March.

I originally applied for more financial aid in November, knowing that the best time to move would be in the mid-semester break in February and wanting to have time to save some money first. I’m still trying to get it.

There are plenty of people in my classes who work full-time and have kids and still manage to study. I’m not one of them. I had never completed first year before, let alone done a 300-level paper, let alone two at once as well as a 200-level, and I know that dealing with WINZ affected my work over the second half of summer, especially in NZ Land Wars. I don’t really want to be trying to study with a baby in the house. I just don’t. Excitable dogs barking is hard enough.

 

 

 

 

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.

About WINZ Payment cards

Ever wondered how WINZ gives people emergency money for food, etc? Quite possibly not. For a while I just assumed they transferred it into your bank account – the problem with that being that it probably won’t go through until the next day, and the other problem being that in our system of no trust for beneficiaries, how could the government know you were spending it “right”?

I had a meeting with a lady called Bonnie today to clarify some things about my medical appeal, starting with the fact that it was a medical appeal rather than a standard appeal. Bonnie was actually very nice and helpful, far better than some other people I’ve dealt with, so if anyone else is in the Porirua WINZ area, props to Bonnie. Anyway, while we were talking she asked me some questions to get an idea of my circumstances and what was going on with my application for the disability allowance. I told her I’d been waiting until I had enough money to go to the doctor to fill out the medical certificate. To be honest, I could probably have afforded it this week because I got a heap of groceries last week due to the amazing generosity of a friend. But instead she checked with the clinic how much it would cost me and authorised a payment for WINZ to cover it, since that’s literally the only reason I need to see a doctor in the next just-over-two-months. While she was doing that she also authorised a payment for me to get some more groceries.

WINZ payment cardSo, this is a payment card. It works just like an EFTPOS card. Underneath that black bit is an 8 digit number, as opposed to the 16 digits on a credit card. The last four digits are the PIN, and yes, this is incredibly insecure, and it’s been in the news before, and it’s still how they do it. (Please don’t use this information to steal someone’s payment card, for the love of everything good and true.) While it doesn’t have a WINZ logo or label or anything, it’s still pretty distinctive. It doesn’t look like any of the bank cards that are common and it only has 8 numbers. If you’d seen one before, you’d definitely recognise it very easily. It also flashes up on the EFTPOS screen saying “WINZ Payment”.

While they had money for both the doctor and the groceries on the card, they have a way of programming it so that each portion of money can only be spent in certain places. The money for my doctor appointment (which she was pretty shocked by – she kept going “That’s so much!”) can only be spent at my doctor. The money for my groceries can be spent at any supermarket, but nowhere else. Further, the money is only good for three days. The day you get it and the two following. My doctor’s appointment is tomorrow so I didn’t need to worry about paying for it in advance, and after WINZ I went to the Warewhare to get a couple of badly-needed clothing items, Reduced to Clear to see if they had anything I needed (got some cheap cheese, considered and then dismissed some frozen capsicum or strawberries), and then straight to the supermarket.

((ETA: Apparently the card isn’t actually accepted at all supermarkets either. The Tawa New World doesn’t take them, so I’d have had to go right up to Porirua to use it anyway. Luckily I’d done the bulk of my shopping yesterday, and this was just a quick “NW has cheap watermelon and also that Popsicle slushie that I like” and I could put it on my debit card.))

It is a real experience being in a supermarket when you’ve spent months carefully budgeting your food, suddenly having a lot more money than you’re used to spending. And, of course, I do have more food at home than would usually send me to the shops. But normally my food budget is $30 a week, and while I’m getting used to that and pretty good at sticking to it, it does leave me a bit low on some nutritional areas, especially in the fresh produce section. I am not particularly upset at getting more money, you know? I also have a couple of gaps that have appeared in the last week, so I filled those in, got some stuff that isn’t hugely perishable, a couple of first aid kit things like band aids, and yeah, quite a few indulgences. Seriously guys, if you see someone with a payment card and you think some of their purchases are questionable, it’s because they haven’t been able to buy those things in a really long time. I never shop without carefully assessing each item and keeping a running tally in my head. And to be honest, I was still carefully assessing each item. It’s a hard habit to break. I knew there was no chance I’d hit the limit though, and indeed there is quite a bit left on there still. I might pick up a snack tomorrow after the doctor, I might not, but a decent chunk will go back to WINZ when the three days are up.

Sadly some of the restrictions on the card such as only spending grocery money in supermarkets have negative affects aside from just reflecting the government attitude towards the poor. One of the biggest is that if anyone has an arrangement for getting food from other sources, like community schemes where you put in money and get a box of vegetables, or shopping at a good cheap farmer’s market, or farm gate sales, you can’t use a payment card there. I also can’t use it at Reduced to Clear (actually I’m only about 95% sure of that, I forgot to ask but since it’s not a supermarket and she was listing Countdown, Woolworths, etc I suspect it’s not on the list), and not at the Warewhare either. Normally the Whare’s pretty expensive for food, but the stacks of things near the checkouts often have fantastic deals. Today I spotted boxes of those long tubes of coloured liquid that you freeze for cheap ice blocks. I would have been tempted if I could have spent the card there and if I could have easily gotten a box of 90 ice pops home. Instead I got a box of Frujus on special. (They were 5.99 from memory if you like Frujus. Countdown. Should be good until Sunday.)

That’s pretty much it, anyway. A very recognisable faux-EFTPOS card that can only be spent at certain stores that only lasts for three days. It was sort of interesting to find out about and I’m hugely grateful to Bonnie for getting me one. I’d just spent about ten minutes answering questions with answers that ended with “…but I can’t afford it” and teared up a couple of times when she was asking about family support and things. She asked once if I was “still” going to counselling and I sort of laughed and told her I couldn’t even start yet and even with the disability allowance I’d be down $9 a fortnight, plus transport. I also gave her the name of my GP in Christchurch who knows more of my background and can hopefully give some more comprehensive information for my claim.