I’ve been struggling to deal with the public debate around beneficiary rights that’s continued since Metiria Turei’s game-changing speech last week.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m extremely glad this conversation is happening, and I’m frankly surprised that it’s still going. Usually this sort of thing is live for a 24 hour news cycle then everyone forgets about it. Clearly, not this time.
But I’m so terribly sick of being accused of “stealing taxpayer money.” Of being a liar and a thief. Of being lazy. Of having my humanity stripped from me, and despairing because it doesn’t matter what I say or do, there’s going to be people who don’t believe that I have any right to the help I get. Which means they don’t believe I have any right to live.
The fact we are still talking about this makes me think that is now is finally the time for this issue to be taken seriously. And I don’t think it’s just because we’re two months out from an election. I think it’s because enough people have finally had enough of attempting to live within this broken system. I think we’ve reached “peak” whatever that peak may actually be – rage? fear? frustration? all of the above?
Metiria did something when she announced that she lied while on a benefit. She opened the floodgates for others to share their stories, and these stories show the heart of the problem, which is that the punitive welfare rules in New Zealand create ‘criminals’ – and then we punish them even more.
Last week I wrote specifically about benefit fraud, because there is so much misinformation about this. Most people have no idea of two vital things: 1) What actually constitutes the fraud (mostly ridiculous and extremely minor things) and 2) The figures around that fraud.
There’s so much misinformation that gets used to stir up vitriol against beneficiaries. For example, the dollar amount that benefit fraud supposedly costs New Zealand each year? That’s not the dollar amount that beneficiaries are defrauding the system by. Most of that is the dollar amount that the state is spending taking beneficiaries to court, for owing totals of less than $1000. A lot of media have done the comparison of benefit fraud to tax fraud, which is pretty indicative that if anyone is “ripping off the taxpayer” for large sums of money – it’s people who have large sums of money, not people on benefits who have so little.
From my earlier article:
- Figure from Max Rashbrooke in 2013: “800 prosecutions a year for benefit fraud. 50 a year for tax evasion – even though that costs us 50x as much.”
- Also in 2013: tax debt in NZ was around $6billion, and welfare debt $1billion. But IRD is more likely to write off unpaid tax, than MSD is to wipe welfare debt (I have personally experienced this).
- In a comparison of IRD/ACC debt and MSD debt this year, it was found that MSD is much more “aggressive prosecutor,” making “670 prosecutions in the year to March 2015, while ACC made only four in the same period.” ACC did not prosecute anyone with debt under $20,000, whereas MSD would do so for as little as $1000.
- – A little side from me here, because, I’m sorry, what the actual fuck? People committing tax and ACC fraud are left alone, and beneficiaries are chased like criminals for marginal sums in comparison.
- “The amount of benefit fraud uncovered dropped from $41 million in 2013-14 to $24m by 2015-16. In that same period, MSD spent $49.5m investigating benefit fraud and overpayments.
- By comparison, Inland Revenue (IRD) uncovered $1.2 billion in tax “discrepancies” in that period, recovering $349.1m from tax non-compliance, and $13.7m from fraud.”
It’s been incredibly hard to watch my rights as a beneficiary be debated in this abstract political way. I understand the need for that, and as I said, I’m really glad it’s happening. I want us to talk about this.
But I have felt so frustrated and depressed because I feel like there is nothing I can say that will change some people’s belief that I don’t have any right to the help I get.
Also as I’ve said, those beliefs are often based on misinformation. For example, many people don’t seem to know that beneficiaries pay tax. Benefits are income. They are taxed just like any other income. Yeah, what I pay in tax is pretty minuscule – because the benefit is minuscule – but I’m happy to pay it, because guess what? I really like our public infrastructure and services such as, say, healthcare. I’m extremely glad we have it.
The other image that keeps getting reinforced is this one of bad beneficiaries reaching directly into the pocket of hardworking, tax-paying New Zealanders. “Why should I pay for people who don’t work?” they cry, as if they are completely incapable of A) any human compassion and decency, and B) realising that they, too, could one day get sick or become unemployed, and therefore need the very system they want to dismantle. The thing here is, again, beneficiaries are taxpayers like anyone else, so this is a false dichotomy, and: “taxpayers” don’t pay welfare. The government does. This is not a pick-pocketing situation. This is everyone paying into the same pot that pays for all social and public infrastructure. Because that’s how our democracy works.
Thank you, again, to Metiria. For being the brave woman she is, for sharing her story, for standing up for herself and for so many people, and for leading a party that has policy that might actually affect change.