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OPINIONSocietyMay 13, 2021

They said the changes would help the most vulnerable. Here’s what happened to me

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The government announced that changes to the welfare system would reduce poverty. For me, it did the opposite, writes Alex.

Earlier this year Carmel Sepuloni declared that changes to the welfare system, introduced on April 1, would help to “reduce poverty among our most vulnerable”.

That hasn’t happened for me.

The narrow and tightly targeted nature of our welfare system means I lost money after April 1. I now have over $37 less each week to live on. More than a month on, I have received no satisfactory explanation from Work & Income on why this happened to me. And because my experience is of a system lacking transparency and trust, I have been unable to find out what I can do, if anything, to change it.

Here’s the little I do know.

On April 1 the government changed the rules so that main benefits would rise with average wages. They also changed “abatement thresholds”, which means people on a benefit could earn more through work before facing cuts to their benefits.

This would seem promising to people who have the ability to work. I am not one of them. I receive a Supported Living Payment (given to those with an injury, health condition or disability, or to those who care for people with an injury, health condition or disability), as well as a Disability Allowance with my disability expenditure topped up by Temporary Additional Support (TAS).

But in the early hours of Wednesday April 7 I discovered, to my shock, that the flow-on effects of these benefit changes meant a drop in income for me – despite no relevant change in my circumstances.

As I went to arrange phone payments for my neuromuscular and chiropractic treatments, and to check regular bill payments for rent and power, I saw I had over $20 less than usual in my account.

My immediate reaction was worry. I live in a cold and damp Kāinga Ora house, with insulation fitted before the year 2000. One of my first thoughts was: If I am unable to pay power bills, I lose my ability to use dehumidifiers to remove dozens of litres of moisture daily from my home, and to pay for heating which keeps me from freezing as we head into winter.

Of course, I didn’t sleep. After 9.00am, I called Work & Income. I waited 40 minutes, hearing voice recordings without any call-back option, before being able to speak to a human being.

While waiting on the phone I heard via an automated message that callers experiencing anxiety could use a phone counselling service. To some this might seem like a thoughtful gesture. To me it feels more like a sign of how normalised distress and anxiety is for “clients” in the system.

After being told my payments would be checked, I waited another 20 minutes. The call centre operator got back to me, confirmed my payments had been reduced, and then gave me even worse news. While my first income cut had been over $20, for each week going forward I would receive $37.45 less a week due to the April 1 changes.

That may not be a lot to some people. For me it’s more than $160 a month – a huge hit. Nothing had changed about my disability costs or my life circumstances. What was it I was alleged to have done to lose such essential income?

On Monday April 12 the Work & Income position was confirmed to me. However, no one could explain how the benefit increase created such an outcome. I asked for verifying paperwork. I begged for it.

Three weeks on, I’ve been sent nothing. I’ve engaged in a total of 17 phone calls, mostly mine to Work & Income with their call-backs. On April 27 I was given the most detail to date. I was told that because of the “increase” in my benefit, I no longer qualify for “disability exception” for Temporary Additional Support (TAS), meaning I lose out on $45 of that provision per week. The roughly $9 a week increase I was due to receive was offset by this $45 drop, meaning I’d get $37.45 net less a week.

I don’t understand the mathematical and policy formula (how would I when no one has shared them with me?). Or how the system can be so rigid and lacking in humanity to enable this outcome. The only way to recoup such a cut for me is to skimp: go without food or not pay energy bills in a timely way, jeopardising my power supply. That’s disastrous for me given how housebound I am due to my disability, and the fact that the Winter Energy Payment is halved this year compared to last year.

In my experience, those of us living from benefits have to be the most disciplined with our money. But how can anyone budget for such a sudden, unannounced, significant drop in income?

Then there’s the process. Those of us living with disability are not unfamiliar with variable income. It would help to be given a chance to  prepare for changes, particularly at the onset of winter energy costs, or to be treated well when those changes land unbidden in our laps. I was given no warning of this, and have not received requested communications in writing for the past month. I’ve been told by a call centre staffer that I was being treated “like a person”, as if this was an act of generosity. The last few weeks feel like doing a long cryptic crossword with no clues. A crossword costing me more than $160 in lost income every month.

To be honest, this felt to me like cruelty. And it was reinforced when I learned, mostly by chance, that government officials knew when they made changes to the benefit system that people in my position may lose income. The Child Poverty Action Group – which read about my story on Twitter – had just received some documents in response to an official information request about something else. This happened to include official advice that groups may be “adversely impacted” by changes, due to “complex interactions” of payments – it explicitly mentioned the TAS “disability exception”. That advice is below:

The text contains a headline reading ‘Other Considerations’ and a subheading, ‘Potential adverse impacts for groups’. It then reads: “there are a number of groups that may be adversely impacted by some of these changes, particularly where payments have complex interactions. Each option and combination of options would affect different groups. For example, people receiving the AS or receiving the upper limit of Temporary Additional Support (TAS) while accessing the disability exception are examples of groups that could lose under some of these changes. We can provide further advice on the adverse impacts for particular options and combinations of options, and advice to address the families who are financially disadvantaged by any changes.

If the government knew about this, why couldn’t they prevent the issue or mitigate its impact upon the most economically vulnerable? Or at least, If they knew, why couldn’t they warn us?

I hope some people might understand how difficult all this is to deal with. But in case you remain unmoved, consider my broader circumstances. I’m data deprived, disabled and living in state housing on a sum vastly below even minimum wage. I don’t have easy access to the internet: a profound extra stressor during Covid lockdowns. My GP tells me I’m severely depressed but in fact I’m suffering post-traumatic stress following a bus incident during Covid lockdown that left me injured and in a year of profound chronic pain, now likely needing yet another surgical intervention. Every day I deal with after-effects of multiple surgeries, only needed because of house maintenance neglected by my landlord. Because benefit payments are inadequate, I have often depended on the kindness of friends and neighbours proffering me loans, which I find embarrassing to say the least. A friend loaned me $30 to double my data this month so I could get in contact with the friend who helped me write this piece. As difficult as my story is, it is not exceptional. The lives of many of us needing to live on benefits hold trauma, fear and distress.

I say all this not to ask for pity, but because I hope it leads to some understanding. I also want to be viewed as a whole person. In the past I have worked as a public servant and later in and for community organisations. Since being unable to take up paid employment, as a volunteer I helped others with health-related advocacy or by writing formal documents for people less able to articulate their needs and arguments in writing. I’m proud to be from a working-class background, and I love art, opera, and ballet – cultural experiences that I wish I had access to. I’m someone who believes in progressive politics, and who is certain that only by caring for each other fully will we be able to pull us and the planet through any pandemic (now or in the future) and the urgent climate crisis.

Like everyone going through the welfare system, I have stories and talents to share. Life must have life in it to be worth living. If I seem challenging to deal with, it is because I carry the weight of inhumane government policy upon my shoulders and the scars from over 30 years of lived adversity, not only on my body but also on my psyche and heart.

I believe the welfare system we have can and must change.

People like me shouldn’t have to risk valued friendships to ask for loans: benefits should be raised to the level of a liveable income.

We shouldn’t feel distrusted or dismissed, and anxiety and fear shouldn’t be seen as an acceptable byproduct of delivering benefits: the culture and process of dealing with Work & Income, and other government providers, has to improve.

We shouldn’t have to face a system so rigid and complex that when benefit increases happen, some people are boosted while others fall off fiscal cliffs into chasms of deprivation and despair – an experience far worse than “slipping through cracks”.

And, for now, surely it’s not too much to expect governments to show respect to people in the welfare system, including by communicating the possible effects of changes in advance.

Much as I would like to own my story and boldly tell it, I am not able to put my full name on this piece of writing. That’s because in 2009 Paula Bennett, then minister of social development, released the private details of two beneficiaries who spoke out on the loss of Training Incentive Allowance. I’m justifiably concerned that in retaliation for my speaking out the same thing may well happen to me.

Politicians’ actions on social security can deeply mark our lives, often for years and decades after something is said or done.

As I finalised this piece of writing, two other things happened.

First, after someone I know posted my story on Twitter, I learned on April 30 – after a trail of threads – that some supporting funds might be available to me via the Transitional Assistance Payment: Abatement Threshold Increase. You cannot apply for this funding. Instead, the website for this says, “The Ministry will assess whether or not the client qualifies for Transitional Assistance Payment and grant it if they qualify.” No one on any Work & Income call has informed me of this option.

Second, on the day the draft for this article was finalised, documents Work & Income assured me would be couriered to me over a week ago turned up at my house in my absence. Because a signature was needed, they were not delivered. Without easy access to the internet, I needed to spend an hour on the phone with NZ Post, only to find out that my sole option was to collect the documents at a post centre half a day’s inaccessible travel away.

Maybe the documents will tell me, over a month after my benefit payments have been cut, that I’m eligible for a “transitional assistance payment”. Maybe they’ll explain why I don’t qualify for the “disability exception” any more.

After what I’ve been through, I’m not holding my breath.

Max Harris assisted the author in editing this post

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