Making an impact for the poor and vulnerable
Lisa Beech, Caritas Research & Advocacy Coordinator, reports from a ‘Benefit Impact’ organised by Auckland Action Against Poverty in West Auckland. Benefit advocates from around New Zealand converged on the New Lynn Work and Income office in September for three days of benefit advocacy, inviting people to check entitlements or work through specific issues about their benefits.
While Social Justice Week focused on the challenges facing young workers – such as low paid, insecure work or life on a benefit, Lisa got a crash course on what it’s currently like to ask for help from Work and Income.
Here she reports from Day One of the Benefit Impact, with subsequent days to follow.
A man just out of a long stay in hospital asks for help in getting a food grant. I suggest we also look at his dental and medical needs, but he’s too tired and hungry. ‘Please, I just want some money to buy food and then I want to go to sleep.’ He doesn’t look well. He can’t follow the conversation with the case manager. He walks out the door with a food grant and a load of worries about how he is going to make ends meet.
I want to shout today’s cases from the rooftops, and at the same time I want to say nothing at all to protect their privacy. Getting across their reality while preserving the dignity of each individual is a challenge.
Parenting vs jobseeking
The young woman I saw this morning has a good reason for missing her work-testing appointment last week but faces a possible benefit sanction for doing so. The case manager’s eyes open wide when we explain what has been happening in her life, and agrees that parenting is a much higher priority than job-seeking in this particular case.
We are applying for a deferral of work testing. The law does not specify specific situations where work testing obligations can be deferred, but the Work and Income computer system has translated this into a list of tightly defined circumstances, none of which clearly meets the need in front of us.
With some help from another staff member, the case manager finds a way to record the deferral of work-testing, then asks: ‘Why did you not just explain all of this to your own case manager, why come all the way to another office to sort this out.’ The young woman explains that she does not feel her case manager listens to her needs, once declining assistance for an extra bed on the basis that the woman and her young son should share a single bed in the overcrowded relative’s home where they live with 10 other people.
‘If you don’t like the decision you get, you should always ask for the manager,’ today’s case manager says. ‘At Work and Income, the customer is always right.’ I say that this has not been my experience, but we don’t want to argue too much with a staff member who has just granted what we asked for. We leave gratified with the result though a bit baffled by the interaction.
A woman I saw this afternoon lives with a complex timetable of hospital, doctor and counselling appointments. The cost of petrol needed to get around her appointments means she usually receives a food parcel from the City Mission – she finds it less humiliating to ask for food there than to ask for extra help from Work and Income.
Her power company has her down as a customer who should not be disconnected because of her dependence on sleep apnoeia and oxygen machines. However a request for assistance with masks, filters and the power to run them was declined by Work and Income because her health condition was recorded as ‘depression’.
‘You should definitely get this reviewed,’ says the case manager, put on especially to respond to the influx of cases generated by the Benefit Impact. I had thought that was what we had just been doing for 45 minutes – painstakingly showing that the woman’s disability allowance had not been calculated correctly. However, the case manager asks us to go and get print-outs from each of the medical services and suppliers involved for the past 12 months. It is an overwhelming amount of work, especially for a sick beneficiary with no petrol in her car and no food in her fridge. We consult with a more experienced benefit advocate who suggests a simpler process. We’ll be back tomorrow and give it another go.
God’s chosen people
It is hard to be poor anywhere in New Zealand, but I don’t know how these Auckland beneficiaries survive. Only one person I saw today had accommodation costs that were less than her base benefit rate. Everyone else was paying more than 100 percent of their main benefit rate on rent. That means supplementary benefits such as the accommodation supplement, disability allowance or temporary additional support are being used to cover basic costs such as food and power. These are the layers of support that are increasingly complex to administer and to apply for, and substantial advocacy is often required to achieve them. Many problems would be solved and much time saved if the base benefit rate was set at a liveable rate.
Beneficiaries coming into the Benefit Impact seemed surprised and unsure when benefit advocates told them extra support was potentially available to apply for advances for whiteware like fridges and washing machines. Del Soti, a worker with a Catholic charitable organisation attending the Impact to learn about advocacy, summed it up when she said the people coming in the door contradict the impression given by many politicians. ‘These people have a poverty mentality, not an entitlement mentality. They are asking for less than they are entitled to, not more.’
I experienced many emotions today – anger, frustration, relief, hope, bewilderment, satisfaction. But underlying them all, the most important awareness was a deep and growing consciousness of how much each of the struggling people I met today is deeply loved by God. Their faces and stories stay with me, not just as examples of interactions with Work and Income, but as today’s experience of God’s chosen people. More than what I have learned about the operation of the benefit system has been the absolute awareness and certainty that God counts every tear that they have shed, that Christ walks with them every step of the long walk through the bureaucracy, that the Spirit surrounds them with love and compassion.
Today I do not need the reminders of the prophets and the tradition of the Church that the poor and vulnerable are especially in need of society’s protection; God’s real passionate love for the people I met today is so vivid that it seems painted on the air around them. Helping with the Benefit Impact feels not so much an act of service as an act of worship.