Following the Green co-leader’s admission about misleading WINZ, Nicola Gaston recalls her own upbringing on a benefit, and confesses to a fraud of her own.
Metiria Turei’s recent announcement of Green Party policy on welfare in New Zealand has caught people’s attention, all right. But instead of focusing on the co-leader’s commitment to lift families out of poverty, or her message that “we will not be a government that uses poverty as a weapon against its own people”, there has been an unhealthy focus on the idea that Turei lied, or committed fraud, when she confessed to failing to inform WINZ about additional flatmates, out of fear that it would affect her benefit and ability to care for her daughter.
Rodney Hide, of all people – the perk-buster extraordinaire and one time Epsom electorate MP – misses the point spectacularly. Sean Plunket, who is director of communications for Gareth Morgan’s The Opportunities Party, thinks it’s OK to ask (in a now-deleted tweet), “Does anyone know where the father of metiria’s baby was in all this?” (though he has since gotten in touch to clarify that this wan’t intended to judge Metiria, but because he feels strongly that part of the answer is to “make men better”). Jane Bowron wins the prize (so far!) for the most cringeworthy take by suggesting that somehow WINZ have a role in policing the occurrence of inbreeding.
The one piece I’ve seen from someone who has a clue what they’re talking about has been anonymously penned. There’s a reason for that, and it’s a word that starts with F, but it isn’t fraud.
It’s fear that bothers me most, and the effects of that fear, following Metiria Turei standing up to share with New Zealand on the national stage. I’ll concentrate on the fraud, however, as I understand that it is easier to sketch out in a factual manner.
I grew up on the Domestic Purposes Benefit. If I add my student allowance years ($98 and change per week) and my (tax-free) PhD stipend, I’ve been a direct beneficiary of the state for half my life since I was five years old. From the age of seven, when my parents separated, to the year I entered university, my mother relied on the DPB to feed, clothe, house, and educate her four children. I’m not here to tell her story – that isn’t my place – but there are a couple of anecdotes from my own experience that I feel able to share.
My mum tried to get back into education, and from there into the workforce, in 1992. That’s five years after my parents split; the year after my youngest sister started school. She headed to university; she studied part time, and got As; she chose to study Mandarin Chinese, out of interest, but also because there was an emerging recognition in Auckland at the time that this was a skill of rapidly increasing value.
Fast-forward to the end of 1993. My mum has had her university fees paid through whatever provisions then existed; she has successfully completed a year of language study, part time over two years. She looks to WINZ to support her re-enrollment for another year (she still has four children under 15).
She goes to her appointment, presents her case, they demur. Beneficiaries must study useful things. In the opinion of the WINZ staff member, this means enrolling at courses at AIT (now AUT), rather than at the University of Auckland. She wishes to study Mandarin; this is fine. She is enrolled – in an intensive beginners summer course that markets itself as preparing students for the job market.
She protests. She points out that she has already studied to a level above that of the course they are offering. The staff member gets angry. There is always – always – the threat of the withdrawal of support at each of these interviews. My mum backs away, quietly.
This story has a happy ending, though fraudulent: it is the story of how I spent the summer answering to my mum’s name and learning Mandarin with a group of perplexed but very kind adults. 谢谢你们新西兰人.
More importantly, my mum made it into full time study the second time around. It just took her until the year I started university to make it.
The second story dates from earlier, and it’s one I haven’t told much, though I think of it often in conversations about scientific ethics. And whenever the science fair, that stalwart of the NZ school calendar, rolls around. I’ve been asked to judge them a couple of times; I confess I always spend more time asking the kids why they did what they did than looking at the exhibits. “My mum told me to” is an honest answer; it doesn’t make it right that that is what kids get awards for.
The biggest cost of poverty, to kids, is not the inability of their parents to pay for things. It’s that kids learn so very quickly not to ask. Those big sheets of cardboard you need, to make the project board to display your science project on? They are expensive. And I’m only talking about the basics: not about the kind of fancy pens or stationary needed to make a project look cool.
My first science fair, I didn’t even try: I never even asked my mum. I just pulled my sister’s project out from under the bed, where it had sat since the year before; I carefully peeled off the piece of paper with her name on; I replaced it with a piece of refill with my name written on. I was now the proud owner of a science project on the principles of biodynamic farming – manure filled cow horns, clockwise stirring, and more.
Fraud. It’s everywhere, once you look. Fear is, too, but you may have to learn to listen for it, and listen carefully: it’s never expressed in words so much as it is in silences.
Your vote is your own: I won’t tell you what to do with it (although if you happen to live in the Epsom electorate, I’d like to point out that Paul Goldsmith is both a 20% improvement on our previous Minister of Science, and he’s been inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America*). But I will ask you to think hard about what our welfare policy is intended to achieve, and why it matters to all of us – those who work in education or health, but also those who wonder what might be holding our economy back – that all New Zealanders start life with the support they need, without fear. **
A 20% increase on a pittance is still a pittance. But the dignity that goes with increasing benefits to the point where the fear of losing them is not a perverse incentive? For a generation of kids, that is priceless.
* This may be factually incorrect. In fact, it may be appropriate to call it a lie. You decide.
** I sent this piece through to my mum, before deciding what to do with it. Her words? “The fear is something the general public cannot understand. Unless you have been in that position of wanting to offer the children you love every possible advantage … sometimes it is only in retrospect that you know what you ought to have done.”
Editor’s note: The sentence referring to Sean Plunket has been revised twice following submissions from him to both the author of the piece and the editor of the Spinoff.