‘No one would choose to live in poverty’

The National government reckons they’re getting more and more people off the benefit – but is that true? And if it is, what is happening to those people? Guest writer Alicia Sudden has some answers. 

“This week more than most, with international elections and national earthquakes, I am reminded of why I chose to focus my time on social development,” says Alicia. “And why it is so important that we all continue to fight for what we believe in and to support each other.”


Alicia Sudden

In March this year I completed my thesis which focused on the outcomes of beneficiaries in New Zealand. I spent a lot of time deciding on what I would research for this thesis. I wanted more than anything, for it to be an opportunity for it to have a real and positive impact in New Zealand. The Government had been very clear in their focus to reduce benefit numbers. However, this in itself seems a futile goal if the outcome is not positive for those coming off the benefit. I wanted to delve beyond this goal, to see what was really happening to people who came off the benefit.

I had experienced myself the struggles of attempting to find employment recently, and I had also worked in casual employment only for my hours to be completely cut for two months with absolutely no notice. I was aware that coming of the benefit may not be long-term, nor may it be better for people.

As a daughter of a sole parent who had needed the benefit when I was born, I was also increasingly frustrated by the narrative that dominates the public spheres. The assumption that all beneficiaries are lazy, don’t want to be in work, and are taking advantage of the system. I wanted my research to provide a platform to criticise this narrative, and start a new conversation.

Many of my results were not surprising. Not all those who come off the benefit go in to full-time employment, many are in non-standard employment or are back on a benefit, and some go off the benefit without any other income source. Employment often bought significant difficulties to life, particularly if it was unstable, and especially for parents. And notably, the people I spoke with wanted to be working, and wanted to work toward a better life.

I was aware that coming of the benefit may not be long-term, nor may it be better for people.

What surprised me the most was the extent that current social policies and Work and Income impacted people’s lives. The wellbeing of families was significantly altered by being on the benefit, not only as a result of the low financial support, but also the stigma and social isolation that came with being on the benefit.

A participant in my research described their experience:

“I still feel a lot of judgement for everything that’s happened. And none of it I would have chosen for myself. In fact, it was definitely not the plan. And I hate the stigma… As much as I try to get out every day, not having somewhere to go, to work to uni or something, it’s actually kind of depressing and isolating in itself again… If I go out, there is no purpose of me leaving the house. Taking [my child] to the park for an hour or so, but there’s no reason. And it’s awful. I like to have a schedule, but at the moment there is no need for a schedule. So it’s really depressing.”

Another issue that arose was the overwhelmingly systematic nature of Work and Income. This meant people were not treated as people, but rather as the sum of a series of tick boxes. And we all know that life does not fit in to tick boxes. This meant for many that significant time and energy was spent attempting to fight the system or fit in to it so they could get what they were entitled to.

One participant of my research described what they had seen:

“It seemed by the end of it they were bringing in all these measures to try and make things harder so people just give up on it, trying to fill out these forms. I think they are just trying to create barriers to people applying for it. I’m sure there are lots of people that have done that, have given up trying to fill out all the paper work. I don’t know what they are doing now. Must be on the streets, or maybe they have jobs.”

Despite the historical origins of social security in the social rights of citizens, the inability for some to be able to participate in society through employment, and the reality that we are all supported by the state through things like roads, waters etc., collecting a benefit comes with enduring stigma, and people are made to feel that they are undeserving. This frustration was reflected by one of the research participants:

“I am so tired of the public always thinking that people are on benefits because they are lazy. No one would choose to live in poverty.”

The people I met during my research has solidified my own pursuance of social justice in New Zealand. Their stories will be with me forever, and I want to work toward a future where people in need do not have to endure these types of further struggles and hardship. Now more than ever we need to use empathy and provide support for others. As one participant said:

“And so I realised being home and being on the benefit or being really poor and not having support really for all of us are potentially only a few steps away if you happen to get into the wrong course in life… I worked very hard through my life not to ever be in a difficult position, but it still happened…You think you are really safe and stable but things can change, and then they all mount up and all of a sudden you are in this really vulnerable place.”

If you want to know more about my research, the full thesis is available here, or feel free to email me.