The Catholic Agency for Justice, Peace and Development

Day Three: Auckland Benefit Impact

Lisa Beech reports on Day Three of a ‘Benefit Impact’ organised by Auckland Action Against Poverty in New Lynn, West Auckland. A team of benefit advocates is helping beneficiaries check entitlements and work through issues around their benefits.

The third and final day of the Benefit Impact has passed in a blur.  Word has spread that people are getting assistance, and there are heaps of people waiting to speak to someone.  Benefit advocates pause for only seconds in the corridor to exchange brief impressions. 

Many of us are finding ourselves on an emotional roller-coaster – the stories we are hearing and the situations we are resolving are throwing up our own difficult memories, especially for those of us who have experienced life on a benefit.  The satisfaction of winning small victories is also overwhelmed by the knowledge that this is a temporary situation.

No certainty of work

‘Everything will be back to normal next week?’ asks the young man whose benefit was stopped after he missed work preparation appointments to attend his cousin’s tangi.  ‘We should start getting used to being treated like scum for when youse guys aren’t around?’

He has come in looking for a food grant and payment of arrears to his doctor so he can make an appointment to check out his knee pain. He has no complaints about past employment conditions as a casual labourer and warehouse worker – coming in when called and not knowing in advance what hours he will work or even whether he will work.  But he finds it a drag that Work and Income has demanded to know what his hours of work are going to be when he doesn’t know himself. Having knee pain that feels like glass in the joints is a further hindrance.

I worry about his employment future in a labour market that will pick and choose the strongest and fittest, and is already wearing him out.  But he’s thinking that perhaps he should have set his sights a bit higher than his food and medical bill.  ‘People are getting shoes and fridges and things – can we go back?’  He doesn’t have any faith that Work and Income staff will listen to his requests once the benefit advocates have left. He contemplates briefly becoming an advocate himself: ‘Must be choice to help people, but nah, I haven’t the patience to sit in this office all day.’

No money, no choices 

It’s the young mother of three who leaves me feeling that my heart has been torn in two.  Impossible to write about what she tells me, or what she reveals in what she doesn’t tell me.  The advance payment of benefit for a bunk bed for her father and son will help, leaving a double bed for herself and her daughters in a room of five people.  But she is afraid to go home without the rent, and there’s no way of arranging that payment in her specific circumstances. 

What she wants, and what she needs, is the ability to move out to her own place with her children.  What is stopping her are high Auckland rents, and the impossibilities of finding a Housing New Zealand home or a landlord who will take her on, and of finding the moving costs even if Work and Income help with the bond and rent in advance.  What is stopping her leave is poverty.

I hear in my head politicians saying that it is the choices people make that matters, and that just pouring money into abusive situations will not solve anything.  I can’t explain fully without revealing the young mother’s confidences, but in this case, she has no choices because she has no money.  If she had even a little more money, she would have more choices.

We make calls to some social agencies, who may be able to help.  We talk about the kinds of assistance that will be available to her if she finds another place to live.  We’ve also applied for a review of part of her benefit which may supply some arrears, in time, if it is granted.  I leave her with a list of phone numbers and appointments.  She leaves me with a forced smile on her lips, but her eyes are dead.

Coming back to Wellington, I feel survivor’s guilt.  I’ve sometimes felt like a country ‘hick’ faced with the more visible aspects of Auckland’s conspicuous wealth, but that will be forever changed for me now I’ve had glimpses into its overcrowded bedrooms and empty cupboards.

What will it take ...

In the three days of the Benefit Impact at New Lynn, there were moments of seeing Work and Income as it could be if staff are responsive to requests, and not just because there were 30 benefit advocates witnessing their interactions and decisions.  I had insights into the contrast that beneficiaries themselves perceived between this and their usual experiences asking for assistance. 

I had sharp reminders of the immense complexity of a social welfare system where people are constantly forced to ask for extra help.  This is because essential needs for food, warmth and shelter which ought to be covered in the first tier of base benefits end up being pushed out to the third tier of supplementary benefits simply because base rates are so low.

As Social Justice Week draws to a close, with its focus on the experiences of young workers and young unemployed people, the two young people in their 20s that I met on the last day of the Benefit Impact are foremost in my mind.  Pope Francis calls Catholics to go out to the margins, to take God’s love to people who live in poverty.  I am wondering what it will take, what will it cost us, and what we will ultimately gain to truly become a Church of the poor and for the poor.

Read Day One  |  Read Day Two

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Tutu ana te puehu - Stirring up the dust