I think this is going to be the hardest post I have to write, because it means sharing a lot of personal stuff, which is difficult for my pride. But I also think it’s important, because maybe my voice can help set some misguided preconceptions straight.
Obviously, when I got sick, I couldn’t work anymore. I was self-employed as a public relations consultant, with lots of really interesting clients I loved working with. I was working far too much because I loved it so much, and because my identity is built around achieving things. If I’m not ticking loads of stuff off my list, I’m not happy.
When I was in hospital, a social worker visited and talked to me about going on the Sickness Benefit. I was horrified. It felt like charity, and I never wanted to accept that. Not to mention all the hoops I would have to jump through to even get WINZ to consider me. I’m not sure why people believe it is easy to get, and stay on, a benefit. I had to fill out multiple forms, give them my passport, proof of income from the past twelve months, bank statements, details for my past 2 employers, details of current financial commitments, medical certificates, and of course this all had to be done face-to-face. At a point were I could barely get out of bed. It was incredibly stressful.
Plus, the benefit is paid – and assessed – weekly. For the first three months, I had to take in a new medical certificate every 4 weeks, proving I was still ill. I get weekly letters from WINZ telling me how much I am entitled to that week. If I do manage to do a little work, anything I earn above a certain amount is deducted from the benefit. This is fair enough, but it also means I can’t really work additionally to make up the shortfall.
Because the ‘Jobseeker’s Benefit’ (which is what they have now renamed the Sickness Benefit, even though I have a job, I am just too ill to do it), is NOT ENOUGH to live on.
Yes, I choose to live alone, because the stress of living with other people would cause me to be more ill than I already am. And yes, I choose to have internet and heating and a cellphone. But I would say that I live pretty darn basically. And still, I struggle to pay the bills. (Especially when I get a $400 power bill, for those of you who have been following that story!).
And I’m one of the lucky ones. At least I am now well enough to do a few hours work a week, which means – amazingly and strangely – I actually get more respect from WINZ. At least I have loving, caring friends and family,
This week, my best friend bought me fruit and vegetables, and made me soup to eat for the week, because I was too poor to feed myself, and too weak to cook properly.
How’s that for pride, huh? It was AGONY for me to accept this help. And it’s not that I’m not grateful. I am so so SO grateful for all the support I have received while I’ve been ill, and that includes WINZ, because without that, I wouldn’t have survived. But it has been incredibly difficult to go from being an independent, working woman, to someone who has to stay home, rest, and try to exist hand-to-mouth on a pittance each week.
And, I’d like to reiterate again, that’s a pittance that WINZ can revoke AT ANY TIME. Nicole Skews wrote an article in The Daily Blog (which has since been removed, because: censorship) about the recent welfare changes, for which she interviewed me. At the time I didn’t want to be named, but I think the article is fantastic and I think, I HOPE, it went some way to correcting this major preconception New Zealanders seem to have, that beneficiaries are all dole bludging criminals, who sit round in their mansions playing Xbox and eating KFC pies.
You are not rich when you are on a benefit. Most people are not happy to be on one, and there are many reasons why people are forced into that situation. And you do not have any security. That’s why I spoke about fear in the Daily Blog article. Because the government has all the control. The government, the weird WINZ bureaucratic system, chooses every week if I get to eat, heat my home, feed my cat. It chooses if I can keep surviving.
And that’s not a nice way to live at all.