The undeserving poor

The first thing that’s relevant for you to know about me is that I’m a beneficiary. It’s such a dirty word, isn’t it? Beneficiary. Conjures up images of the great unwashed, the worn-out mothers with babies in dirty nappies, the families sat on broken chairs on the porch of their state house, smoking cigarettes while ignoring their foul-mouthed children who run wild in the streets and grow up to be criminals. The undeserving poor; they brought it all on themselves; they should just work harder and make smarter choices, like you did.

It’s not fair to expect you to prop them up. You’ve worked hard to be comfortable. Your superannuation shouldn’t be means tested because you’ve always been told you’ll receive it. You were also told your second or third house would be an investment for your children and you shouldn’t be taxed on that because you’re just looking out for your kids too and why should anything be taken from you when you earned it. You might not realise the government is actually subsidising your lifestyle instead of helping those who live in hell every day just trying to survive. Hey, you had rocky patches in your marriage too, but you worked it out, you didn’t just quit and then expect the government to support you. See, I’ve been listening to you.

I’d like to publicly declare that I’m a beneficiary because I am sick of hearing the tired, uninformed, and heartless narrative that we shouldn’t have had kids if we can’t afford them, that we are stupid, that we should be forced to work harder, that our incomes should be restricted and heavily scrutinised to make sure we don’t feed our children junk food or that we don’t spend money intended for our poor neglected children on cigarettes and alcohol or you know, maybe on a coffee or a movie because god forbid anyone remembers that parents are humans with needs too.

Our welfare system is designed to expect the worst from those who need assistance. Even though broader political policies are often what create that need in the first place. You want to talk about working harder? Let’s talk about the lack of jobs. You want to talk about poor people feeding their children unhealthy food, or purchasing alcohol? Let’s talk about the high ratio of fast food outlets and liquor stores in the poorest parts of the country. How about stupidity? Let’s discuss decades of oppression that literally shrinks cognitive ability due to chronic stress, and the lack of opportunity for decent education for so many New Zealanders. You want to talk about beneficiaries being terrible parents? Let’s discuss how severely underfunded mental health and support services are.

Then after we’ve discussed these factors, let’s move on to how those allegations simply aren’t the truth. Because the majority of us do work hard and prioritise our children’s needs and the few who don’t have been victims of structural oppression since they were children themselves and they were hurt by policies and moralising attitudes and they would do better if they knew better and had better support. But somehow those who degrade the humanity of beneficiaries based on outdated myths and incorrect information are able to ignore the part they have to play in children’s poverty and motherhood shaming and the ongoing damage that does to our entire society. Inequality restricts economic growth as well as being unethical and inhumane. New Zealand, we are not doing well.

We are stigmatising the recipients of social assistance instead of strengthening our ability to respond to critical needs. We are spitting in the faces of the children who reach out for food. We are making mothers outcasts for participating in their children’s lives. We are electing politicians with deeply flawed and short sighted policies that further disadvantage the needy while lining the pockets of the rich. Those who are wealthy enough to not need any help continue to believe it is by personal virtue and luck and opportunity has nothing to do with it.

Listen, the poor are not poor because they are bad people. The presumed link between poverty and poor character is false. They are poor because they do not have enough money.

A friend said to me “but you’re on a student allowance, that’s different.” No, it’s not. My student allowance is exactly the same amount of money and comes from exactly the same place as a sole parent benefit. The idea that a student allowance is more acceptable than a benefit comes from a place of moralising, where parenting and community service is not valued by our society but studying is. As if the mothers who care for their children in their formative years, or for their aged parents in their declining ones, or the volunteers at the soup kitchen or the homeless shelter or the crisis line, who help the most vulnerable members of our society at their lowest point, are not contributing something worthy.

My son and I are lucky to have a livable house, enough food to eat, and a bit leftover for fun if I’m careful with budgeting. Let’s not forget that this is because I am educated, I am white, I am healthy, and I have enough social skills to build a support network around us. Any of the mistakes I have made could have left us far worse off were those things not the case. If I were mentally or physically ill, for example. Or if I didn’t have a friend to lend me money for car tyres so I could still get my child to school that time mine wore down to dangerous levels before a kindly parking warden pointed them out.

Sometimes small mistakes or events mean disaster for the vulnerable, where the same situation is merely an inconvenience for the privileged.

When I first started writing this, I listed all the reasons why I don’t fit the stereotype. I don’t think these things are as relevant as my first sentence though. They don’t make me any more deserving. We all deserve to live and be supported if for whatever reason, short- or long-term, we are unable to fully support ourselves.

I would present myself as an example of why the welfare queen myth is nonsense and maybe change someone’s mind about the negative ideas. So that perhaps women like me will stop being criticised in every public discourse where people who don’t want to understand our lives focus on mythical abstractions instead of real experiences. Maybe then there will be a few less people fighting progressive ideas for greater social equality and a few more supporting them.

But I fear that using myself as an example – or my friends as examples, or even your friends or family, because I’m sure you know someone who is on a benefit but who “isn’t like the rest of them” – won’t make any difference. I’ll just be filed under “an exception” and the “dole bludger” will continue to be the common view. The vile rhetoric I see in popular media attacks my friends and I and many others on a deeply personal level as well as holding back potential change that could revolutionise our entire society for good. The solutions are out there, we just need to stop blaming poor people for being poor and instead take action to resolve the structural issues that create this inequality.

We can do better, New Zealand. When we hold each other up, when we look after the vulnerable in their times of need, when we work together instead of shouting at each other across the divide money creates, everyone is better off.

 

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12 Comments

  • Christine Eason
    July 25, 2017 at 6:27 pm  - Reply

    I agree with you. I had to remake my life in my 40″s after leaving an unsafe marriage. I was on the benefit for 7 years while I went to Uni and got a degree and honours. 3 children, 2 of them now with degrees and good jobs and one who is gainfully employed. I had the advantage of an education, a supportive family and a belief that I could make a better life. I also had a lot of gardening and cooking skills so could make a dollar stretch. To be on the benefit without those skills and advantages must kill the spirit. Even I despaired at times for what the future might hold for myself and my children. We have all survived and I now work for a university, have bought a house and even have a superannuation scheme. I am eternally grateful that the benefit existed and never grumble about paying my large taxes but am also very aware that poverty is creeping through NZ and becoming normalised in society in ways that would not have been acceptable in the past.

    • Charlotte
      July 25, 2017 at 9:52 pm  - Reply

      Thank you for your comment Christine! You’re a role model!

  • Rory H
    July 25, 2017 at 10:05 pm  - Reply

    Fantastic writing, and based in fact… Now how do you make people who don’t see this side of the story, read it?

    • Charlotte
      July 25, 2017 at 10:18 pm  - Reply

      I wish I knew the answer to that!

  • Tony
    July 26, 2017 at 4:46 pm  - Reply

    I’m probably one of the people who don’t see this side of the story. I know that after travelling through Asia some of my prejudices and preconceptions were challenged and broken. And I’m learning more and more about the validity of the Treaty of Waitangi.
    My family story revolves around a very caring and hard working Mother who raised two sons while educating herself and getting us out of one of the poorest parts of Hamilton.
    Now my wife and I run our own business – employing a dozen people.
    So how does NZ improve the lot of the poor beneficiaries? Do we give them more? Provide higher benefits, more support services, better housing etc … To cover these costs the money has got to come from somewhere … increased taxes or government borrowings, asset sales, decreased spending in other areas … where does this money come from? And how does this stimulate the economy to create more employment? If you make it too hard for businesses to grow (for their owners to invest their time and money in new staff) then why should we? And why should a poor person bother to seek employment if they have to sacrifice 40 hours per week being told what to do, when they could receive a good income from a benefit?
    Why should my wife and I work as hard and as long as we do, why should we top toe along the edge of our overdraft and stare down big mortgages, if we’re not on the path to become “wealthy”. Why should we have to pay increased taxes to fund increased benefits? Why should we work, save, invest, employ, manage, sacrifice etc … to reach the end of our working lives only to be told our Superannuation has been cut back. I would be very surprised if someone worked the hours my wife and I do, didn’t become a valuable employee earning a good wage.
    We were both bought up in families who valued the ethic of hard work … and were rewarded for hard work. And both our families love New Zealand (Yes, that’s a bugbear of mine – we have one of the best countries in the world, but my God, do we bitch and moan!)
    Maybe getting my head beaten in by gangs of kids while Mum was at work, is part of a privileged upbringing. I really value the example Mum demonstrated to us … getting us out of that place and battling to make a better life.
    I don’t know if my views are relevant in 21st century New Zealand.
    Do we need more jobs? Yes probably. But the biggest complaint I hear about employees from the fellow business owners I speak with is that they don’t come to work! Why isn’t having a job valued? Do people think they have a right to work? What type of super wealthy economy would that right exist in?
    We provided a job to a beneficiary – she gave up because her fellow beneficiaries were stealing from her! Are beneficiaries their own worst enemies?
    New Zealand has one of the best and broadest social welfare systems in the world … but it’s not enough. Imagine if it wasn’t there. Imagine a group of beneficiaries who are grateful to New Zealand for the support they are given! The people in China do not receive anywhere near the support our government gives to New Zealanders … yet they work incredibly hard for very low wages … and theirs is one of the strongest economies in the world. Imagine if New Zealand was the same … and I am grateful that we’re not.
    A very important principal is “what we focus on expands”. Complaining about our poverty, focusing on how New Zealand could do better, or moaning about how hard done by we are … that energy simply causes that to expand. Success breeds success. Remember at school all the good rugby players always hung out together – they stayed in a group focusing on their success … so they got better. Same thing before the exams … those people who had not do the (or any) hard work were also together, focusing on how bad they would do, how bad the teacher was or that the subject was just dumb. And they too were right, they did do poorly.
    Personal responsibility is important. “Responsibility” is an ugly word. We are each responsible for what we do and the consequences of our actions. Just because there’s a KFC on the corner doesn’t mean I have to eat there, and I don’t have to buy alcohol just because it’s sold directly over the road. The simple way to close these places down is not to buy from them. Do our local councils or government have the right to refuse them the opportunity to do business? Is it discrimination to allow a Burger King to open, but then say no to a McDonalds?
    Whatever other people may do around me, I am responsible for my life.
    I don’t know … I am a dinosaur.

    • Rich
      July 27, 2017 at 8:49 am  - Reply

      Thanks for offering the other perspective on this. You are right that setting benefits too high would be a disincentive to work and that there are *some* lazy people out there who rip off the system. What you’re not seeing though is that the vast majority of people on a benefit actually have some kind of genuine need and most will hate having to rely on handouts. The second point is that these people in need simply don’t get enough to live and as a result, they and their children suffer, so it’s no luxurious ride. Also, they are treated like utter garbage by WINZ, intentionally basically psychologically abused by them. A lot of the work of a beneficiary is in filling out ridiculous forms – like the permanently legally blind person who has to prove that they are still blind every 3 months. There must be plenty of other stories online – have look for some. A friend of ours was forced to pull her own badly abscessed molar tooth out because WINZ refused an advance.

    • Rich
      July 27, 2017 at 8:51 am  - Reply

      Then there’s the issue of mental health. People who are at the end of their tether, fighting WINZ and the system geneally, possibly abused, definitely trying desperately to keep their heads above water in a feedback loop of decline, suffering from anxiety, depression or whatever else – people in that situation do *not* make good ‘choices’. Alcohol, cigarettes, etc. are human atttempts to cope. That same friend above constantly makes dumb decisions that thwart our attempts to help them, but then they have to endure way more stress than I as a ‘hard working’ professional have even had to contemplate and would cope no better with if similarly isolated. These things spiral downwards where bad decisions and outcomes build up and up to the point where an individual can’t dig themselves out on their own – and most of the stress is sheer lack of money: a late payment fee from the bank, on top of a school field trip, on top of a broken window, a parking fine and a WINZ penalty you will be paying for the next 10 years, all while feeling the shame of owing relatives and neighbours money you can’t pay back, not sleeping at night due to anxiety, then oversleeping and getting your kids to school late and being censured by authorities, then getting ill and the kids going beserk and placating them with expensive treats…. etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum.
      If you have managed to rise above that type of situation then I absolutely take my hat off to you – you are made of strong stuff – but not everyone can do the same, and many don’t appear to be model citizens. So do we punish them? Kick them while they’re down? (The answer is yes.)
      Just don’t lose your physical or mental health or people in your support network, because you won’t be helped, in fact the system will lean on you to push you further down. Good luck – I hope it doesn’t happen to you. I imagine that another visit to China looking for the people who can’t work would show you where all this can lead.
      Thanks again for taking the time to share your perspective in so much detail. In these days of social media bubbles it is really helpful to see the sound logic behind different views, where many views are equally valid.

    • Charlotte
      July 27, 2017 at 1:25 pm  - Reply

      I certainly won’t deny that personal responsibility is important. However we also need to recognise the structural factors that constrain people. Often people cannot make true, free choices, because they are limited by the situation they find themselves in. Most people are decent, hard-working citizens, who may find themselves in a spot of trouble or vulnerability and they need support for a while. I think NZ needs to become more progressive and look at the bigger picture. Other countries like Denmark are leading the way in terms of social security. It’s not enough to look at individuals like yourself who espouse the meritocratic neoliberal “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” ideologies. We need to look at group data and find out why people are struggling and how we can help them, because no amount of saying “just work harder” is going to effect the change we need as a society. New Zealand is shamefully unequal compared to the rest of the OECD.

    • Charlotte
      July 27, 2017 at 1:08 pm  - Reply

      Thanks for sharing that, excellent resource.

  • Colleen
    July 27, 2017 at 10:48 am  - Reply

    ‘Our welfare system is designed to expect the worst from those who need assistance.’ This is EXACTLY my experience! I love how well you put it here. I am educated, have a fabulous job, awesome family support — and every time I go to WINZ I feel alienated, stupid, and very very small. I feel as if they see me as dangerous — you can’t even get into an office unless you show photo ID.

    I avoid following up on benefits I’ve applied for because I’ve been given the run-around before and expect to again. I avoid filling in the multitude of forms for daycare assistance because I have to wait in line for at least an hour in the office to hand them in. I find myself preferring to get by on what I earn from part-time work because it’s just too awful to convince WINZ workers I’m entitled to financial help.

    In every other part of my life, I’m proactive, competent, and confident. And yet WINZ gives out this ‘you’re not worthy’ vibe that I find soooo hard to handle.

    I would LOVE to see this change!

    • Charlotte
      July 27, 2017 at 1:10 pm  - Reply

      Such a common experience, sadly. There must be a better way!

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