The queue outside Manurewa Work and Income. Photo: RNZ

We should not have to do MSD’s job for them

We did not create the queues outside the Manurewa Work and Income. Policies that entrench poverty did, write Auckland Action Against Poverty in an open letter

Kia ora Minister Carmel Sepuloni and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Let’s be very clear: Auckland Action Against Poverty did not create the poverty that has led to people lining up in queues in the rain to see an advocate in Manurewa. People do not have enough income and are paying too high rents. The long queues will only end when benefit levels are increased to a liveable income, when there is an end to sanctions and when there is enough public housing so people aren’t paying most of their income for private rentals.

AAAP is a volunteer-led organisation with little resources trying to walk alongside a large amount of people experiencing poverty in this country. When you say we should go to different offices to spread out the work of Ministry Social Development staff and avoid “creating a bottleneck”, what you are admitting is that MSD staff all over Aotearoa New Zealand are failing the people they are meant to be assisting. You are admitting that there is something seriously wrong with our welfare system.

We have consistently told MSD that people shouldn’t be locked out in the rain, that everyone has a right to walk into any office to receive hardship assistance and have an advocate with them. When we first started advocating outside of Manurewa Work & Income, people were allowed to wait inside like everyone else. However, at the beginning of this year we were told that this was a “health and safety” issue.

We have told MSD that we are only there because people are being denied their entitlements in their own offices without an advocate present. We do not have enough advocates to be everywhere at the same time. We shouldn’t have to do MSD’s job for them, but we are standing alongside people because the system is failing them. We are not the only organisation experiencing long queues as a result of systemic poverty, there has been a significant increase in the demand for hardship assistance all over the country due to the housing crisis and stagnant benefit levels.

MSD has released figures saying 98% of all hardship grants are approved at Manurewa Work & Income regardless of AAAP’s presence, but this does not reflect those who may be turned away at reception and denied the right to even see a case manager. These statistics also do not reflect partial approvals where someone applies for an amount and are only given a small proportion. This happens frequently and is why people will wait at early hours in the morning to have an advocate come with them.

MSD’s response to the large queues is to encourage people to go to MyMSD or to take a phone call. This provides little opportunities for case managers to have a face-to-face conversation and to use their discretion to assist people to receive that to which they are entitled.

Some media have tried to spin the lines outside of Manurewa Work & Income as “fake news”. There is nothing fake about poverty in this country, there is nothing fake about the toxic culture at Work & Income. People need an advocate because they are consistently denied their full and legal entitlements and because they do not have enough money after rent to pay for basic necessities. A recent report released by the Ministry of Health states that one in five children live in households with food insecurity, with benefit levels and housing identified as some of the reasons for this.

If you want to end the stress caused by a line of people at Manurewa then you should consider increasing benefit levels to a liveable income and building enough state housing so people are not having to spend most of their benefit on private rental accommodation. If you want to talk about ending child poverty, then you must end the poverty experienced by their parents. Do not blame the demand for assistance on us, when your unwillingness to be bold when it comes to welfare is to blame.

You brought together experts from across the country in the form of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG) and they delivered recommendations to you that you have largely ignored. If we are going to talk about wellbeing then we need policies that reflect this. The WEAG report Whakamana Tāngata: Restoring Dignity to Social Security in New Zealand included a recommendation to significantly increase benefit levels.

Benefit levels currently sit well below the OECD’s relative poverty line. This is because successive governments have blamed the unemployed for the unemployment they have no part in creating. This is about punishing people so that they are forced into a low waged and precarious labour market. Your fixation on work giving people dignity is hurting people and families.

Some of the most punitive sanctions target sole parents, people looking after our babies. Invasive fraud investigations into the relationship status of sole parents is actively harming the wellbeing of people. It is forcing sole parents into financial dependence in a new relationship. Being a parent is hard enough, without a system designed to punish you at every turn.

A lot of the people who come to see us are either paying too much for a private rental, or are in the emergency housing cycle waiting for public housing. The public housing waitlist has reached over 11,000. Yet your government is fixated on state-subsidised home ownership schemes instead of building enough public housing so that people aren’t trapped in the private rental market or homelessness.

There is enough money to end poverty but you need to be bold. You need to tax wealth and redistribute it into social welfare and public housing. You need to spend that surplus you are sitting on. It is socially and fiscally irresponsible to allow people to continue to live in poverty. We would like to see this rhetoric on well-being and kindness materialise in the lives of the people we work with.

We will continue to do our best to advocate and organise towards a welfare system that ends poverty. If you want us and that queue to disappear, then we suggest you fight for this also.

Our recommendations have been clear since we released our Not Enough Left demands in 2017:

  • Removing all sanctions from the Social Security Act.
  • Substantially increasing benefit levels to a liveable income.
  • Treating adults in the benefit system as individuals without penalising them for being in a partnership.
  • A mass build in public housing to house people in permanent, safe, healthy public housing.
  • Ensuring that applicants receive all the assistance to which they are entitled.

Ngā mihi nui,

Auckland Action Against Poverty

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