New Zealand’s social welfare system “dehumanises” people in need, with beneficiaries described as “scared stiff” of Work and Income case managers, new research says.
Surely this must come as a surprise to exactly no one. The above is from the Press article on a report into the treatment of beneficiaries undertaken by Canterbury Community Law.
The report is huge, and I don’t just mean how extensive it is. This is what I’ve been waiting for. It carefully, methodically proves, with vast amounts of research and evidence, that there is massive systematic breakdowns within the Ministry of Social Development. And that these breakdowns lead to unacceptable and inhumane treatment of people on benefits in New Zealand.
This report carefully, methodically proves, with vast amounts of research and evidence, that there is massive systematic breakdowns within the Ministry of Social Development.
The information in the report absolutely enforces everything that I have said and heard about Work and Income.
I am scared to write this. You may remember the response I had when I spoke to the media about these issues, and my experience with Work and Income, in March last year. My story was everywhere. The Minister for Social Development responded to me. I was attacked by members of the public who believe that I wasn’t genuine, who believe the misinformation about beneficiaries that is so pervasive in New Zealand.
I was terrified that I would be punished by WINZ for speaking out, just like many people are. In fact, the opposite happened. I would like to say, right now, that this post is NOT about my personal treatment by WINZ. I now have an excellent case manager, for whom I am very grateful. But I believe I only got that because I became public.
I have a lot to say about this, and I am unwell, so this is going to be more than one post. Today I’m just going to cover point one here:
1. Key findings in the Report,
2. What Canterbury Community Law are doing next, and what their recommendations are for the Ministry and others.
3. What I’m going to do.
I’ll write about the last two points over the next couple of days.
1. Key findings in the Report: ACCESS TO JUSTICE FOR BENEFICIARIES, A COMMUNITY LAW RESPONSE
Reading this felt starkly, painfully familiar to me – the stories that I have heard so many times, that I have lived, finally documented so well. While it’s painful, it’s also hugely exciting. One of the excuses I have heard when I push for change is: “all we have is hearsay.” Well, this is not hearsay. This is a legal report.
In total 50 in-depth interviews were conducted, 21 interviews with representatives of agencies with involvement in the benefit system, and 29 interviews with beneficiaries; and a focus group undertaken with five beneficiaries.
Additional statistical data was obtained from MSD and MoJ, and from an online survey with 17 community law centres and 14 beneficiary advocacy groups.
Receiving benefit entitlements
- Experience of the benefit system
- Accessing benefit entitlements
Benefit review and appeal processes
- Medical Appeals Boards
- Benefits Review Committees
- Social Security Appeal Authority
- Need for legal advice
- Lawyers’ inadequate knowledge of welfare law
- Power imbalance
- Reviewing the debt
Responding to beneficiaries’ legal needs
- Accessing legal support
- Suggested responses by community law centres
- Implications of research for the Ministries of Social Development and Justice
Here are some key pieces (these are pulled directly from the report).
1. Poverty and inadequacy of income is the main problem for people on benefits. Receiving full entitlements is therefore critical to survival and impacts on beneficiaries and their children’s health and wellbeing (Expert Advisory Group, 2012). The integrity of the benefit system rests on sound decision making about entitlements and on access to review and appeal processes to challenge benefit decisions.
2. Beneficiaries experience an inherent imbalance of power when dealing with the government department that makes decisions about their entitlements at both the institutional and individual case manager levels.
3. Beneficiaries felt they were disadvantaged by a case management system that required them to see a different case manager on each visit (although Work and Income do provide dedicated case managers for some groups of beneficiaries).
4. While participants reported a variety of positive and negative experiences, beneficiaries’ negative experiences as clients of Work and Income and stigma attached to being on a benefit overwhelmingly permeated their interaction with the benefit system at all levels.
5. Complaints about the lack of privacy featured strongly in beneficiaries’ interviews, with participants relating first having to explain the purpose of their visit to the Work and Income receptionist in front of others in the waiting room and then having to repeat this in an open plan office to a case manager.
6. Work and Income’s service charter provides clients should be treated with respect. The interviews, however, suggested that this did not always occur.
7. There is a complex web of welfare law and internal policy that is the basis for Work and Income decision-making. Work and Income case managers make entitlement decisions based on internal policy guidelines rather than on the provisions of the legislation and some participants thought this could lead to wrong decisions where the policy was not consistent with the provisions of the Social Security Act.
Accessing benefit entitlements
While MSD has a policy of providing beneficiaries with “full and correct entitlement”, beneficiaries believed that this does not generally happen in practice. Their experiences showed inconsistency in benefit decisions.
In order to determine entitlements under the Social Security Act, decision makers must consider a person’s circumstances and whether they meet the legal criteria. Decision makers use Work and Income’s internal policy guidelines for guidance about how the law is to be interpreted.
The Social Security Act is complex and not easily accessible to beneficiaries.
Inconsistencies in benefit entitlement decisions
A key theme to emerge from the interviews was inconsistency in information about entitlements and decision making. Participants reported variations in decisions from case manager to case manager, office to office, and different areas of the country. This mirrors a finding in other New Zealand research that “unhelpful and often obstructive staff” at Work and Income provided inconsistent or incomplete information about benefits (Chile, 2007 p. 8).
Some beneficiaries found that information about entitlements was more freely available from a Work and Income call centre than from offices, although there were inconsistencies between the two.
“It’s like you can ring them up on the phone, and they say, ‘yes, we can do this to help you, and you could be entitled for that.’ But you get down to their office and it’s completely different. It’s like they’re not going to give you anything. I would make sure that the information they give you on the phone or the website is the same as when you go for your appointment… they should be more connected and integrated like that, you know, not saying ‘that person on the phone shouldn’t have told you that’.
Barriers to receiving entitlements
Completing benefit applications was a barrier for some beneficiaries. Beneficiaries also reported challenges getting documents together and paperwork being lost by Work and Income.
Applications for medical entitlements could be particularly difficult in the view of one community advocate.
“I mean to get a Disability Allowance is actually quite a complicated process, you’ve got to go to your GP, get your certificate. The GP has to put on your certificate what you are entitled to. And what I used to do for the clients was I’d get a little sticky note and I’d write down everything that the GP could [include] – you know, so heating was included and transport and all that sort of stuff. But then you have to go and get all your verification which is kind of mind boggling, if you’re on an Invalids Benefit or you’re a person who’s got an undiagnosed brain injury and is on Unemployment. You know.”
Benefit review and appeal processes
The processes that are established under the Social Security Act to review and appeal benefit decisions are critical to the integrity of the benefit system. These processes are Medical Appeals Boards, Benefits Review Committees and the Social Security Appeal Authority.
However the research found that there are a number of barriers to beneficiaries using these legal review and appeal processes, including not knowing that these processes exist, a lack of confidence to challenge a decision and a fear of the implications of doing so.
Many decisions appear to be made without the beneficiary attending the hearing.
Imbalance of power
Many participants referred to an imbalance of power between an individual beneficiary and Work and Income, reflecting not only the information and resources held by Work and Income, but more importantly, the power case managers have over income to pay for essential needs.
The power imbalance was referred to in many interviews, such as the need to “stay on the right side” of case managers to ensure that receiving entitlements was not compromised.
“The Department’s got the axe above their head; they can cut off their benefit. I think that’s enormously intimidating… they’ve got huge power over these people, power of the most basic rights: food, clothing and shelter. And if you’ve got children too and you’re terrified of having your benefit cut off, you’re immediately completely disempowered.”
Beneficiaries we interviewed described the stigma they experienced because they received a benefit. Stigma comes not only from Work and Income but also the wider community. Words like “bludger” and “scum” appeared throughout the interviews with one person described being made to feel like a “bludging lowlife bum”, and another beneficiary as a “second class citizen that deserves nothing”.
Treatment by Work and Income case managers
The negative treatment of beneficiaries by some case managers dominated the recollections of the beneficiaries we interviewed, who said they found it very difficult being a client of Work and Income. They described feeling intimidated. One person described feeling physically ill whenever they entered Work and Income offices: “Your stomach churns and you literally feel sick.”
These feelings were expressed in the strongest terms by a number of beneficiaries.
“I hate it [Work and Income] with a passion. I hate it. I hate going there, I hate dealing with the people, I hate everything about it, I hate ringing them. It’s degrading …”
There was some evidence of beneficiaries foregoing entitlements from Work and Income and instead obtaining help from other agencies such as food banks and mayors’ welfare funds because of previous negative experiences. Some beneficiaries believed there was a deliberate strategy by Work and Income to decline assistance, forcing people to seek help from non-government agencies.
Finishing note for today
This is only a very small amount of what is in the Report – I strongly suggest reading the whole thing.
I have spoken to Canterbury Community Law and tomorrow I hope to write about what they are doing next, and their recommendations for change.
I am also undertaking some small plans of my own. I can’t do much – my health prevents me. But if I can help push for change, I will.