by Catherine Delahunty
Paula Bennett is horrified that people claim to have committed crimes because of poverty and difficulties accessing welfare. She claims welfare is accessible for those in need and is enough to live on.
My experience is that welfare is only accessible to some people, and often only if they know how to fight for it or if they have an advocate. In my days as a beneficiary advocate some unemployed people came to our advocacy service in Gisborne saying that if we couldn’t help them get help they would be committing crimes to survive. Of course we did not condone this. We took them to Work and Income and tried to get them some help. These people were often not long term beneficiaries, but mainly desperate younger people who had lost jobs or were way behind on their bills and had huge debts.
They appeared to not be able to access support for a range of reasons. Many were young men in contract seasonal work, who either hadn’t been paid or hadn’t known that Work and Income could support them between jobs. Stand-down periods and confusing messages had made them feel desperate. They were ashamed that they couldn’t support themselves, and if burglary led to food and cash they were considering it. We all know that burglary really leads to jail, but coping with the bureaucracy at Work and Income is harder for some people to cope with than breaking a window and grabbing a plasma TV to sell.
The most heartbreaking stories were not always about crime. One young mother came to us desperate to keep her children – she had worked in a massage parlour for two nights, out of desperation not choice, and then she hadn’t been paid. She had no power in her home and two children under four. Her mother was about to take her children and all she wanted was a way to look after them herself.
Paul Bennett might have amnesia about being a poor solo parent, she might think the welfare system inspires confidence in the citizens at the bottom of this heap, and that the assistance provided by Work and Income is enough to live on.
Newsflash Paula: There’s a huge black-market out there of people struggling to survive on low wages and benefits who do all kinds of things to supplement an inadequate income. It’s not always pretty or justifiable, but it reflects the low level of benefit payment and the barriers to regular income for some Work and Income clients.
There is a need to raise benefit levels to meet real cost of living and to train Work and Income staff to look for solutions for desperate people by providing them with full and correct entitlement rather than placing barriers in their way.