AND NOTHING’S CHANGING. This weekend is the Green Party AGM. That means it’s been exactly a year since Metiria Turei went public with the lies she’d told in order to survive as a beneficiary. Have we progressed since then? Or have we just forgotten?
As we all know, Metiria’s choice to stand up resulted in her resignation, an outcome she obviously predicted. It made a powerful statement -the fact that a woman could lose her job, even years later, because she contravened Work and Income’s rules.
Let me very clear about something: I am bored of this conversation. I am so bored of it that writing this piece has been something close to excruciating. And I’m not bored because it doesn’t affect me. No. I’m bored because it affects me every day of my life.
I talked to a lot of people while writing this. I ummed and aahed about how and where to publish it. It is such an indescribably vital thing to be talking about, and I wanted as many people as possible to see this, but I didn’t want to give up editorial control. Because this sort of narrative can so easily become what amounts to an extended headline for a nasty, seething comments section.
This is not an extended headline. This is not click-bait, this is not an opportunity to use vulnerable women’s stories to illustrate a point. This is my attempt to draw together some voices that might help demonstrate the depth of the issue, again, and ask what’s being done about it.
So, onwards to point one: Women are affected more by benefit “sanctions.”
What Metiria did was give a very public platform to a voice that so often gets silenced. It’s not that we’re not talking. It’s that our voices are already marginalised. Single mothers. Women with disabilities. Maori and Pacifica women. Ours are the voices that get lost. Ours are the voices that are sent back to the kitchen.
What Metiria did was give this conversation a gender. The sanctions that the Ministry of Social Development uses as scare tactics, to control, and to punish – many of these impact women more than they impact men. This is because:
- Women are more likely to be solo parents.
- Women are more likely to be caring for high needs or elderly family members.
- Women’s earning potential is less, and the gender pay gap means they earn less for the same or more work.
- Women are more likely to be the victims of domestic violence and abuse.
I took a look at the Safety Net Policy that is part of the Green Party Confidence and Supply Agreement, to see which bits are relevant to women and might be starting to see the light of day.
- Increase all core benefits by 20 percent
- Increase the amount people can earn before their benefit is cut
- Increase the value of Working For Families for all families
- Create a Working For Families Children’s Credit of $72 a week
- Remove financial penalties and excessive sanctions for people receiving benefits
Here’s part of the questions I put to Marama Davidson (Green co-leader), Jan Logie (Welfare Spokesperson), and Julie Ann Genter (Minister for Women):
As far as I know, core benefits have not increased, the amount people can earn before their benefit is reduced has not increased, and financial penalties and excessive sanctions have not been removed.
Does the removal of penalties and sanctions include removal of docking people’s benefits when they are in a relationship? Women’s earning potential is less, therefore this affects us far more, and can lead to being convicted of fraud, or things like financial dependence on an abusive partner.
Also because women’s earning potential is less and we are paid less, we are more impacted by the docking of every dollar earned, over $80/wk. We pay tax on the benefit, secondary tax on any income, then WINZ takes a chunk of every dollar over $80 – and that’s gross income, not net, so they’re effectively taking a chunk out of money we don’t even see. The outcome is working very hard and ending up with very little.
HAVE WE MADE ANY PROGRESS?
Radio New Zealand has reported that sanctions were down 20% compared to the same period last year. In the three months to June, there were just over 12,200 sanctions, a drop of more than 3000.
That’s still over 4000 people per month.
I wonder if this represents the number of people sanctioned “correctly” – as welfare advocate Kay Brereton tells me that since the disputes process got put in place following the 2013 reforms, 90% of sanctions that are disputed get removed.
“Most of the time people have been slapped with a sanction unfairly – Work and Income’s process is to apply the sanction if they think a problem has occurred, then remove it if it is disputed. So the onus is on the beneficiary to prove themselves not guilty.”
Kay tells me that more single men are sanctioned than women, however far more single mothers are sanctioned than men.
Kay, who is a member of the Expert Advisory Group the government has appointed to make recommendations on changes to the welfare system, says in her work as an advocate she sees many mums who don’t eat so their children can.
“Women have to navigate things like what “a relationship” actually means, and at what stage to declare it [and get their benefit cut]. It’s a big risk to take, for them and their children.”
“There is also so much pressure on solo parents to work, which has created an immense amount of stress and fear. People see the rules as being different for everyone. There is no income security, everything is a threat.
It’s the threat of sanctions that’s affecting people more than the sanctions themselves.”
DO YOU FEEL THE THREAT?
I talked to women who are either on benefits, or received Working For Families. The unanimous answer was yes. Yes, they are afraid. Yes, they are worried about the future, about doing something wrong, about receiving a financial punishment they can’t afford.
ONE: A single mother, with chronic illness, working 30hrs a week against medical advice. She receives WFF, and is too worried about being sanctioned to apply for a disability or accommodation allowance.
Have you ever been sanctioned by WINZ?
Yes I have. And I was given incorrect information which lead to IRD becoming involved. And the misinformation lead to a break down of trust between myself and my ex-husband when IRD. started its process to claim child support.
Does the fear of sanctions cause you significant concern?
How does it impact your life and choices?
Without the working for families I wouldn’t make rent. Going over the threshold by a small amount impacts hugely. In my line of work the increases are never going to meet the amount I stand to lose.
TWO: A single woman with a permanent disability, who says that the threat of sanctions has severely impacted her interpersonal relationships.
Have you ever been sanctioned by WINZ?
SO WHAT DO THE PEOPLE WHO MAKE THE DECISIONS HAVE TO SAY?
Marama Davidson, Green Party Co-Leader said
“Our welfare system should be one based on supporting and helping people to have decent lives, not punish them. All that sanctions do is push people further into poverty and desperation.
“Benefits aren’t enough to live on as it is, and benefit sanctions punish the people who can least afford it.
This hurts women more – because women are still doing the bulk of childcare and we’re still discriminated against in employment. We have to end the demonisation of women for being poor, having kids, and needing help.
That’s why the Greens have campaigned hard to end all benefit sanctions, and we’re working within the Government to address this, starting with the most excessive sanctions.”
Jan Logie, Green Party Welfare Spokesperson said:
“Many aspects of the welfare system impact more on women. Women, particularly marginalised women, are more likely to be in low-paid and precarious work. They are vastly more likely to be in fulltime caring roles, and are significantly more likely to experience family violence. More women have disabilities. This unequal impact needs to be taken into account when designing solutions.”
“Transforming our welfare system can’t be done overnight, but we know that too many people are struggling to cover the very basics at the moment. While we are impatient for change it is still a relief to see Work and Income start to initiate work to restore the dignity of clients at Work and Income offices. The decision to require benefit suspensions be signed off by a second senior official has resulted in benefit sanctions dropping by a fifth in just a matter of weeks. This is progress, but too many people are still unfairly losing the support they need.”
“Every New Zealander should have a decent life, not just scrape by. Our Safety Net policy is about repairing the damage that multiple governments have done to our social welfare system – which should ensure nobody lives in poverty. That’s work the Green Party is pushing for through our Confidence and Supply Agreement, which commits to an overhaul of the system.”
Julie-Anne Genter, Minister for Women said:
The Government can do more for women on benefits, such as ensuring that women are getting what they’re entitled to. I know that the Minister of Social Development Carmel Sepuloni is focused on ensuring our welfare system works for all, including mothers and children, and will take this into consideration.
Some single mothers face barriers returning to work and navigating the benefit system. Investing in mothers, especially when they are the only adult and income earners within families, is how we address child poverty. Everyone benefits from improving the economic independence of these women – not just themselves, but their families and broader society.”
So– what did Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni tell me?
“I am absolutely committed to seeing the repeal of Section 70A progressed given the harmful impact it has on 13,000 sole parents, primarily women, and their children.
From Auckland Action Against Poverty: “We are calling for the removal of Sections 176, 177, 178 from the Social Security Legislation Rewrite Bill. These sections impose a weekly sanction of $22 or more on beneficiary sole mothers who have not identified the father of their child. This sanction (in its current form of Section 70A of the Social Security Act) is putting into further hardship families already struggling to survive.”
“This Government said before the election that we would repeal section 70a during this term. That commitment hasn’t changed. It will happen.
“We have made our priorities absolutely clear and we are committed to addressing these over the next three years, including to overhaul the welfare system to ensure it is accessible and fair for all New Zealanders. I have established a Welfare Expert Advisory Group to provide advice on the broader overhaul of the Welfare System, including areas such as sanctions and obligations, and income adequacy – but also to gain a better understanding of how best to enable people to be earning, learning, caring or volunteering and ensure a dignified life for those for whom these options are not possible.
“In particular, we need to consider carefully how we work with, and support women to thrive, given they represent around 57% (57.1%) of all working age beneficiaries.
“But in the meantime we will continue to make progress on some more immediate changes to the welfare system, as there are system improvements we can make here and now, without legislative change, that make sense, and make people’s lives better.”
TO SUM UP:
Do we have confidence in the coalition government to follow through on these promises and ensure long-term change? I’m not sure that I do. By this point, I’m not “once burned, twice shy” I’m “my house has been reduced to ash and I’ve left the country.” Do you know what I mean? If you’ve been a woman beneficiary for any length of time, I think you do. There’s hope, because we need to hope, but there’s also hoping blindly, and I don’t think any of us are doing that.
I sound cynical, and I am. I have had promises made to me before, literally to me as an individual as well as in the wider context of politicians talking to beneficiaries. I’ve also been the shoulder for many of my women friends, while we listened to empty speeches, while we made difficult decisions about how to protect ourselves and those we love, and while we tried to make sense of the utter shipwreck of the current system.
I look up to many women members of the Green party. One of the reasons I chose not to write this for any particular media outlet was because I cannot be an objective journalist on this topic. I look up to them, and I want to believe what they’re saying. I really deeply believe that it cannot go on like this. That we cannot address poverty, that we cannot address mental health, and that we cannot address women’s rights in New Zealand without this being a major part of the conversation.
I hope that it’s on the agenda for the weekend’s AGM, and beyond.
Something has to give, and women beneficiaries have nothing left.