As of this week, I don’t qualify for a benefit. Why? Did I suddenly get healthy enough to work fulltime? Did a distant cousin leave me their millions in Apple stock? No. I just made the mistake of falling in love.
Two years ago, MP Alastair Scott was asked about disabled people losing their financial support after moving in with a partner, and whether his government would change welfare policy to recognise how dangerous this legislation is. His reply?
“Well, love has consequences…”
I am literally just like a huge question mark emoji. What consequences? For healthy, working people: none, as long as the relationship is a happy and safe one.
For people on a benefit, especially those with disabilities or chronic illness?
This is not news to me. I’ve known ever since I got sick and became unable to work that meeting someone would have the chance to jeopardise my only means of independence.
For a sick woman on a benefit, the risks around this are far greater than many other demographics. Disabilities and illness are expensive. People with these considerations have medical bills, more complex and costly accommodation needs, transport support, expensive dietary requirements. We are receiving a benefit, an accommodation allowance, and a disability allowance to reflect those costs – though of course we all know welfare barely covers basic needs.
We are more vulnerable because of the higher costs, because of reduced capabilities, because we’re not working, or not working fulltime, or may never be able to work.
The legislation recognises none of this.
The legislation says that if you move in with a partner who earns over a very modest threshold, they are now fully financially responsible for you.
If you’re an able person, imagine yourself in this scenario. Imagine you met someone, and all of a sudden, your independent income was slashed. Imagine weighing up your desire to progress your relationship with your need to survive. Imagine the pressure it would put on a new relationship, for one person to become entirely dependent on the other from the moment you move in together. Imagine having to ask your partner for money for rent, food, the essentials you need to be comfortable. Imagine how both parties might feel about all this.
Imagining it? Good. Unhappy about it? Also good. Because this is discrimination – it’s a law that negatively impacts disabled and ill beneficiaries in a way this situation would impact no one else.
Because I fell in love, I am no longer eligible for any sort of financial support.
Supported Living Payment? Gone.
Accommodation supplement? Gone.
Disability Allowance? Gone.
This isn’t a surprise. It’s something I’ve been physically, mentally and emotionally preparing for since I met my partner.
I researched MSD’s rules around relationships extensively. I read all the policies and queried people. The answers were the same: because my partner earns x amount per year, I qualify for nothing.
At first I naively hoped that maybe the rules for the Supported Living Payment might be slightly different. Surely I could still get help for all the expenses involved with being sick? Surely I wouldn’t have to rely on my partner for the thing that is most vital – my health?
But no. My circumstances don’t change the outcome. Being a sick woman doesn’t change the outcome – even though that exact context makes this policy even more dangerous. This is how the law works, regardless of whether that’s reasonable, healthy, or safe. For me, I know it is. I trust my partner unequivocally. Other women may not be so lucky.
It’s the most vulnerable position imaginable, and one that is rife for unhappiness, broken homes, child poverty, and domestic abuse.
When we started talking about taking the next steps that would make our relationship “official” in MSD’s eyes, I felt furious and afraid. I knew that I would be losing my independence, something that is absolutely vital to me.
It took a lot for me to work through the implications and assess whether I could lose my income support in order to progress my personal life. Obviously, the answer was and is yes. I love my partner. We want to spend our lives together. He has always said he understood everything our getting together would mean, and it changed nothing for him. He is willing to support me in any way I need.
But I’m a feminist. Everything inside me baulked at the idea that I would have to rely on someone else – particularly a man – for food and bills and a roof over my head. I am committed to equality, which is difficult to achieve when one of you has a minuscule income and higher needs. I wondered how on earth I was going to navigate all of this while also dealing with the “normal” challenges associated with moving in with someone for the first time. I found it hard to even consider my reduced independence, to feel OK about having physical, emotional and financial support. I have major trust issues, which could be considered a separate issue, but obviously factored here. At some point, I had to make a leap of faith far greater than the one made by two healthy working people shacking up. I would have to cut the ties to the ropes that, while strangling me for most of the past six years, have also been my lifeline. Am I exuberant about not having to deal with WINZ anymore? Of course. Am I also terrified? For sure.
Yesterday, a report into how the welfare system defines relationship was released by the University of Auckland Public Policy Institute and the Child Poverty Action Group. RNZ reports:
The current rules reflected traditional thinking about dependence on a partner in a relationship and could be a barrier for those on benefits to partner or re-partner.
“The welfare system, intentionally or otherwise, has embedded a set of disincentives for family relationship building, which may run counter to the current government’s policy objectives to reduce child poverty and improve child wellbeing,” the report said.
Ricardo Menendez-March from Auckland Action Against Poverty agreed the rules were unfair.
“It really calls for an immediate reform around this legislation. At the end of the day, benefit levels should be individualised, people shouldn’t be penalised for being in a relationship,” he said.
The Welfare Expert Advisory Group also recommended changes to the relationship rules.
It said new or formative relationships should be allowed a development period of six months from initial moving in together, rather than the current six-week guideline.
That development period would remove some of the stress of having to commit to a live-in relationship, and subsequent reduction of family income, until the parties involved decided this was in their best interests.
It’s important to note that the “six-week guideline” as printed in the WEAG Report is incorrect. Current policy does not allow for any development period after moving in together. What exists is allowance for a six-week “facilitation” with WINZ,
This is from their internal guide:
The facilitation process helps clients to determine what effect their de facto relationship will have on their benefit. A loss of benefit is not easy and commitment to a long-standing relationship does not happen overnight.
You should give the client as much information as possible about their benefit entitlement and how moving into a de facto relationship would affect their benefit. This allows the client to make an informed decision.
A time frame can be negotiated with the client to allow them to decide whether they will enter into a de facto relationship and therefore surrender entitlement to a single or sole parent rate of benefit. This can be a period of up to 6 weeks. This period will give them time to consider the consequences for them and to discuss the matter with their partner.
They should be advised that if they enter into a de facto relationship before that time, they should cancel their benefit. [my italics]
If you are unable to make a decision regarding the client’s relationship you can discuss the case with your Regional Solicitor or local National Fraud Investigation Unit Investigator.
When I asked for the wording of the six-week guideline to be changed in the WEAG Report and Recommendations because it is misleading and could cause people to take risks by assuming they could move in and be “safe” for a further six weeks, I was told the report is staying as-is.
So basically, you’re expected to go to WINZ on a good-faith basis, discuss with them whether it’s financially beneficial to enter into a relationship and examine deeply personal details with an organisation that’s done nothing to earn your trust, and risk being sent to the Fraud Investigation Unit if you fuck it up in any way.
Yeah, seems good.
I decided not to do that, because of all the above, and because I knew the outcome would be the same. I don’t qualify; I lose my benefit. But I’m gaining a partner who, somehow, amazingly, wants to support me. I don’t want to go on about that too much because hey, I’ve been blogging about my personal life for a long time, and now it’s his life too, and we’re actually incredibly fortunate and privileged, in comparison.
Having said that, “love has consequences” has to be up there with the top Worst Responses Ever to this problem. The only “consequence” love should have is a better life for everyone involved. I don’t intend to stop caring about welfare issues just because I’m no longer in the system. I’m in a relationship, but there’s always a risk that could end, for whatever reason, whereas my genetic illness won’t. And besides that, my writing about this for the past seven years has never just been about me. In fact, my new position gives me privilege that those still on welfare don’t have, because MSD cannot hurt me in the same way.
So, I guess, this is my update. My life has radically changed for the better. I think everyone deserves that, regardless of their income status.
It’s time the government actually moved on the Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s recommendations. After all, why employ a 12-person panel of experts to consult 30,000 people over six months, if you’re not going to listen to the outcome?
No one should have to weigh up whether they have a relationship or whether they have independent income. It’s a logical fallacy and it’s a policy affecting our most vulnerable – women, women with medical needs, and women with children.
Come on. Do better.
This column was first published on Sarah Wilson’s blog writehanded.org.