For the past six months or so, I’ve been volunteering as a beneficiary advocate with Auckland Action Against Poverty. As a white man from a fairly well-off family, the most I’ve had to deal with the Ministry of Social Development in my life has been with StudyLink who are a nightmare at the best of times. Beneficiary advocacy has really opened my eyes to the ways in which beneficiaries are treated by our social welfare system.
At AAAP, I deal with people who have been screwed over by Work and Income on a daily basis. They are told “no” and, almost without exception, it isn’t properly explained why. Case workers and managers alike routinely act unlawfully, they’ll happily sanction benefits without explaining the reason why in writing, then turn around and require you to produce endless bank statements for a measly food grant. This is despite the Social Security Act requiring written explanation of sanctions 5 days before they’re applied (s113(2) for the wonks), and the obvious response to a request of a bank statement “what if they’ve just taken their money out?”
Receptionists at Work and Income are trained to turn people away, I’ve seen a heavily pregnant woman declined a food grant at reception on the last weekday before a 4 day weekend, and the worst thing was it wasn’t even surprising. Receptionists are trained with a million different lines to drive people away; “we don’t do walk-ins between 12 and 2”, “we can’t book an appointment to sort out your eviction notice, it’s not immediate”, “I can book you in if you want, but it’ll be a long wait and you probably won’t get that food grant.”
And if you thought you were over the hill when you finally made it past the receptionist, through the 3 hour wait and into an appointment with a case manager for the food grant you so desperately need, you’re sorely mistaken. Case managers are not what you expect, they aren’t social workers constrained bureaucracy orchestrated by a nasty government, but gatekeepers standing between you and the social welfare system that is supposed to be helping you. They’ll tell you “no, you’ve run out of food grant entitlement”, despite knowing full well that all that means is you have to check with a manager for the next food grant. They’ll try and tell you that you can feed your family of 6 for a week on $120. They’ll tell you they can only give you a $60 food grant, because that’s how much the Otago Food Cost Survey says you can live on, but they won’t reduce your debt offsets, even though they leave you with $40 a week for food and are the reason you’re coming in for a food grant anyway.
I used to wonder why Work and Income offices were open plan, rather than having private rooms for what are often private conversations. It’s a stark contrast to other public services like doctors’ clinics. I understand why now, Work and Income are not there to help you, they are only there to make it look like they’re helping.30