“through all of this I haven’t felt like WINZ as an institution has really cared about either my well-being or what might happen to me”
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.
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.
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.
So, 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.
It’s nice when things come together, even if it’s just in a small way. Life carries on while I’m working things out (I’ve had an email from MSD confirming they got my letter) and I’ve been spending this morning preparing for one of my final essays, for my medical anthropology paper. The topic is on medical ethics, and the first half of the question goes something like:
Joralemon believes the anthropologist has a special vantage point on bioethical issues that justifies the move from analysis to advocacy. An anthropologist may have an understanding of different cultural attitudes to the integrity of the body, ritual practices that attend birth and death, or the acceptability of the application of techniques that may cause harm or pain to the patient. However, it is important to remember that “moral decision making is contextual…” (Jessica Muller in Joralemon 2010 p.107).
Can there be an ethical code that includes the cultural values and norms that guide healing-related behaviour in any given society? Under what conditions should an anthropologist intervene in a medical context?
For a while I didn’t entirely know exactly what the question actually meant, let alone how to answer it, but when I turned my computer off to let it cool down and lay down with my Kobo and a pad of paper in case of ideas and just read for a while, it solidified. The book I was finishing is called Sniper by Jon Wells, and it’s about an anti-choice terrorist who shot several doctors in Canada and the USA, the last one of which died. The legal case hinged on whether he was intending to injure or to kill but in defence speeches there was a lot of moralising over whether force (deadly or not) was justified to prevent harm in the form of terminations. So I was reading the final few chapters of this book and coming across passages where it’s quite clear that no one can ever agree because the pro-choice and anti-choice positions start at inherently different philosophical positions. It also reminded me of an image someone posted on twitter that I’d glanced at about subsidies for the movie industry, where pro-subsidy people say “If we don’t give perpetually increasing subsidies the jobs will go elsewhere!” and anti-subsidy people say “We’ll have to give perpetually increasing subsidies or the jobs will go elsewhere!” It’s hard to find a universally acceptable answer there because both positions completely agree on the fact, but disagree on which value is the most important.
So, when I put down my Kobo and glanced at my pad of paper, everything just sort of crystallised. There cannot be a universal rule of ethics in medicine because different cultures view things so differently. Under one system you might view the individual patient as central and focus on their physical symptoms to find an evidence-based solution to prevent them from occuring, while under another you might have a holistic collective view where it’s just as or even more important to deal with the entire family, to tend to any tension or social discord that is causing or exacerbating symptoms. Or have different ideas on who should be responsible for decision making – like, what if what the patient wants goes against the interests of the family or contradict medical best practice? What’s the difference morally between a DNR order and euthanasia? What level of mental disability is enough to override the wishes of the patient and cause them to be considered incapable? How is the conception of a person linked to their physical body, and when does that start and end? How do you weigh post-mortem organ donation against beliefs surrounding the treatment of the deceased?
It will be interesting to write because the second half is to be about a current medical ethical debate in New Zealand. I’m doing the treatment (especially with regards to income support) of people with disabilities, particularly mental illness, which will touch on those things like who gets to make decisions and what best care entails. The guy who is like the head advisor to MSD about medical issues has this position where he believes that putting someone on a disability benefit and letting them not work is, like, literally as unhealthy for them as smoking some ridiculous number of cigarettes a day, and WINZ has switched to this position of focusing on what people CAN do rather than what they CAN’T, but they use unqualified people to make these decisions. So all that sort of thing is basically what I’m going to cover, the questions about what is the best outcome for the government or society or the patient and which outcome should be the highest priority and our cultural assumptions about self-reliance, the history of the welfare system, whose interests are supposed to be protected. It’s not as great a topic as I did for my last anthropology final essay, but now that I’ve figured out what I’m going to say it is definitely going to be something that I’ll enjoy writing, not some tedious shit like my first NZ Land Wars essay.
The Herald has an article up today about new contracts for welfare-to-work schemes which is actually something of an interesting read. Probably not in the way it was intended, though, because it’s clearly attempting to put a positive spin on the whole thing, but in a couple of places you can see the shine wearing a little thin:
“Strive Community Trust chief executive Sharon Wilson-Davis said she did not bid for the contracts and allowed an existing sole-parent contract to end late last year because she felt it would be impossible to achieve the work placements required to earn fees under the new pilots.
“‘A lot of these people certainly want to work but sometimes you are better off to get them into further training,’ she said.
“‘Otherwise if you push them into these low-paying jobs, then when those jobs go they are back in the same place.'”
So, someone who has already been doing this exact work feels that it’s impossible to actually make money off it if you’re acting in the best interests of the people involved. Which makes you wonder about the business plans of the people who did decide to bid for the contracts. The big winner was Australian but I don’t think that means they were ignorant about the condition of the economy – that would make them a pretty fucking incompetent company. And some of the contracts went to local groups who presumably do know the situation, too.
What’s interesting though is that this quote is followed directly by one of those anecdotes about a success story. It’s about a woman whose job history includes opening and running her own businesses in multiple service sectors and being very successful as a real estate agent until her marriage broke up. Then she was on the DPB and had nothing. But now, hurrah! She has a part time job running a check out at New World, and when she went from 16 to 22 hours she also got an extra $60/week tax credit!
Seriously. The success story they ran with was a woman who has run or co-run at least two businesses and been self-employed, who apparently was a millionaire (her home with her husband was worth $1.8m), and now works 22 hours a week as a check out operator. Not to dismiss service jobs, god knows I’ve relied on them before, but you can’t really deny that that’s a bit of a step down for someone with that kind of job history – and notably, that makes one less service job available for people who don’t have impressive qualifications and experience that would open up better opportunities.
When I moved to Wellington seven months ago I felt pretty hopeful.
I haven’t worked for much of the last ten years. For most of it, I’ve been on the sickness benefit, going back to my doctor every three months for another certificate saying I was still ill. I hated that benefit. It gave me a couple hundred dollars a week, which was okay because for the last nine of those ten years I was living with family with a reduced board and food in the cupboards, but I wasn’t able to save much and in the back of my mind I knew that moving out would be… problematic, to say the least. But being on a benefit, particularly a sickness benefit when you have an invisible, mental, disability, is soul-destroying. You don’t notice how much ableism is in the media until you look at it from that position in life. I wanted badly to be doing something useful. In school I’d wanted to be a teacher, most likely a high school humanities teacher, and when I was in seventh form I became a peer leader for incoming third formers who only encouraged that desire. “You’d be an awesome teacher,” one of them told me. (This may or may not have been linked to the rain day when I taught them to play poker with plastic counters.) Others confided in me about their problems or asked me for help with homework. Most peer leaders started dropping out after the compulsory program at the start of the year finished; I kept up the relationship that whole year. When the 2002 students strikes hit I ended up teaching a third form Spanish class so the actual teacher could help other staff round up stray kids. The year before when NCEA was introduced, I helped teachers mark unfamiliar papers during free periods or lunch hours. Helping kids grow into knowledgeble, competent adults was a dream.
I don’t remember exactly when I realised it was a dream I’d never manage. I think it might have been the time I attempted to get back into work, attending one of WINZ’s week-long IN2WRK courses, writing my CV (and helping others with theirs, as many of them had never done one before and some didn’t even know how to use a computer) and sending it out to countless retail outlets, food preperation jobs and whatever else I thought I could do. The co-ordinator said I’d be a great secretary, until I told her that my disability makes it difficult for me to use phones – especially with strangers. All of that resulted in an interview at Whitcoulls. I didn’t get the job because of the way I’d left my last ones: in denial, trying to work through panic attacks, once passing out at work, and always moving on to the next job before the old one could fire me. I hadn’t wanted to admit I was sick. I hadn’t wanted to have to go onto a benefit, especially a sickness benefit. During that second attempt at working, I had another small breakdown, and that was probably when I really understood that teaching was far too high-stress a job for me to be able to handle.
Ironically, it was the February 22 earthquake that changed things. It turns out a job that doesn’t have an interview process, that doesn’t look up your previous employers and ask questions about how you parted, a job that is vitally important, a job that distracts you from the utter nightmare your city’s turned into, is really good at motivating you even through illness. That was what the Red Cross offered when it put out a request for hands to do data entry. Which isn’t to say it was perfect – I’m pretty damn certain it only exacerbated my PTSD, and I left work crying far more than once. We didn’t get much training and in fact none at all when the call centre moved to our office. But it was a very situational job, too, and in the end almost all staff were phased out by February 2013. My sister stayed; I didn’t. I’d already gone back to school part time, studying extramurally so I didn’t have to attend classes and only needed to keep track of assignment due dates and final exams. When I left the Red Cross for good I went full time at school, the first time I’d done anything full time since I was 20.
A few months later I was getting off the plane in Wellington. I wanted to get out from the rebuild, the crippled local government, the looming shadow of CERA. I knew a lot of people in Wellington who wouldn’t start conversations by asking how my house was or chat about problems with EQC. I stayed for a few days with two friends, then went to a hostel, then moved into a house. I bought a breadmaker and a computer screen and a panel heater. I went to a couple of tweet ups, got a pass to the zoo, and learned where at least six suburbs were.
Last October or so, I decided I should compound on those successes by getting some real treatment for my pre-existing conditions and the PTSD from the earthquakes. I asked my new doctor for a referral to the DHB psych services, and he said that I would probably be better served by the Phobic Trust, down in Newtown. Nowhere near my house, but in walking distance to the zoo, so after appointments I could settle down by visiting the tiny monkeys. The downside was, it’s expensive. The assessment was about $120, which I put on my credit card and had them fill out paperwork so I could claim it back from WINZ through a special needs grant. I applied for the disability allowance at about $60, which would cover almost half of the $129 a proper appointment costs. And, because things were starting to get pretty tense between me and the third flatmate and it was something that had been suggested several times before, I applied for the supported living payment, which used to be called the invalid’s benefit.
Those forms were all taken to WINZ on December 5. The woman I was dealing with went through each one and had me initial some things I’d crossed out and tick a couple of boxes I’d missed. She double-checked I was allowed to get the SLP while studying. She told me that I had everything I needed. She went to scan everything in, kept some of it, and gave the rest back. She told me I’d hear shortly.
It took two weeks to find out my SLP had been declined.
It took over a month to find out that, in fact, I did not provide enough information for the disability allowance. They have so many different forms it’s almost impossible to know which ones need to be combined.
It’s now been about six weeks of sending emails back and forth, consulting benefit rights advocates, writing letters requesting appeals, and waiting. Always waiting. During those six weeks I think I’ve spent more time crying than I had since I moved here. I’ve considered suicide. I have two plans that I know are workable and plausible. I’ve had to put food on my credit card because I was so low on fruit, or dairy, or meat, I’ve had days in a row where I wasn’t eating because I couldn’t even leave my room knowing anyone else was home, I’ve sat with my phone in my hand trying to ring crisis lines and not able to do so (see aforementioned trouble with phones). I’ve had fleeting fantasies of turning up at the WINZ office and doing… something, god knows what, that would convince them I need help. (Preferably financial, but practically more likely psychiatric or criminal.) I’ve sent long emotional emails to them. I’ve sat on Trademe poring through properties to rent that I’d never be able to afford on my current budget. Right now I’m on the first day of a “1-2 day” extenstion to a history essay I’ve been looking forward to writing for the whole summer semester. I’ve nearly hit the word count, but I can tell it’s mediocre, it’s shallow, it doesn’t explore the things I want it to. I still need to do all the citations. I can hardly look at it.
WINZ is killing me. I don’t know whether or not I mean that literally, but emotionally it’s true. I honestly can’t see beyond a point where I have to drop out of school for the third time. Either I graduate in 2015 and get to find work, or… I don’t know.
Under the current system you can be denied an SLP by someone with no medical training. It might be a nurse, or it might be a social worker or teacher. They don’t have to tell you this and most people don’t know. They’re supposed to tell you you can appeal, but don’t always (they didn’t tell me, but I knew from other sources). If I don’t win the appeal I have a choice of the Student Allowance (for which I must either maintain full-time status or apply for limited full-time) or the Jobseekers Allowance with Medical Capacity Certicate saying I’m unable to look for work – but I won’t be allowed to study, either. Most students receiving the allowance top it up with part time work, something I can’t possibly do, nor can I borrow the living costs component of the Student Loan because the allowance makes me ineligible.
The worst thing is, through all of this I haven’t been able to access any professional emotional support. That specialist I want to see? Yeah, an appointment is literally more than half of my income, and my rent is already at three fifths. It’s impossible. So I’m struggling against a government agency with just my friends to help me, while they don’t even have to pay a doctor to decide I’m not sick enough for a slightly-more-livable income.
Despite what you may surmise from the title, this is for once not a post about housing. If you’ve been on Twitter the last couple of days you might have noticed that I have an essay due today. I’ve just emailed the teacher asking for a 1-2 day extension though, because this weekend has been HORRIBLE. And, given that I don’t know how things will play out with WINZ, and even if they go well I’ll have to deal with saving money to move and finding somewhere affordable (which even on SLP with the extras I can get there still means “basically a slum”) and buying a bunch of furniture, that’s not likely to change that quickly.
Which means this year I think it’s time to email my teachers at the start of each semester letting them know that in some ways I may be less than the average student. Ideally it won’t come up at all, but if it does, I don’t really want the first explanation to be on or after a due date when I can barely think and would rather be huddled in a corner sobbing.
Also, I was thinking, wouldn’t it be awesome if people’s first contact with WINZ could be an appointment where they sat down with someone and told them exactly what they were having problems with and got to discuss potential methods of fixing it that are NOT practically impossible, judgey, shamey, or which require constantly bringing forms in and getting letters demanding more stuff every week? Like, actual help, possibly with discretionary powers for people who are in a seriously stuck situation? A strong working relationship between WINZ and HNZ, for example, would be fantastic.
Sadly National’s in charge, so not something we’re likely to actually see.
As a brief pre-note, I have had further discussion with WINZ and while they have not mentioned my special needs grant, it seems that they haven’t lost my disability allowance application, they just didn’t tell me at the appointment that I was missing some information, or something. I should probably reply again to see if I can get them to clarify that explicitly and to get an answer about special needs but ughhhhh I cannot stand to right now. I’m hoping it won’t take too long before I get some stuff back from the appeal request.
Someone posted a link on twitter to an article about this woman who was posting recipes on Facebook to feed a family of 6 cheaply and yada yada got on tv etc and now she’s launching affordable food boxes. The article notes that there are other boxes on the market but “she says this one keeps to a strict budget so anyone from students to beneficiaries to large families can afford it.” It is $150/week.