Campaigning is finally getting going in New Zealand in preparation for Septembers general election. In the weekend, Metiria Turei, the co-leader of the Green Party and my first choice for Prime Minister, admitted that back in the 90s she lied to Work & Income New Zealand (WINZ) in order to get enough money to keep her young child fed. The context was that she was announcing a new Green Party policy on the social welfare benefit intended to ensure that no-one has to go through the same thing again.
After five years I am still grateful every day to have a part-time, seasonal job that gives me most of the time enough money to save that I dont have to go back on the benefit. (Living with a partner who bought her house before the pricing bubble is also a critical factor, and I dont express my gratitude for that often enough either.) Ive previously been employed as the editor of a very small monthly student magazine which then went out of circulation due to the present Government making student association membership opt-in instead of opt-out in their first term; I loved that job too, but even with full membership the students association couldnt afford to pay me enough to live, and I had to supplement it with the sickness benefit and, for two of those years, the student allowance.
I didnt start out on the sickness benefit. I borrowed my way through university hoping to become an academic, but I suffered depression and sleep disorders and couldnt cope with the energy demands of graduate study, so I ended up on the unemployment benefit. Back then, and I think its only gotten worse since, that meant you had to apply for two different jobs per day and bring proof of it in to regular meetings with your case-worker. That was how I discovered that I have a social anxiety condition. I physically couldnt do it. I had to get counselling later for the terror I came to feel just opening the automated e-mails Id signed up to with lists of job vacancies. Besides, given my life history then, I didnt believe anyone would ever want me to work for them, only believe is far too weak a word. I just wasnt a person who could persuade someone to employ them, with the same certainty as that I wasnt a person who could get pregnant and give birth.
That caused a misunderstanding which nearly lost me my benefit, actually. I had a blog back then on LiveJournal which was mostly me saying Sorry, nothing to blog about today, but one day I wrote something along the lines of Oh well, back to pretending to look for work tomorrow, and was very shortly called in for an urgent meeting with my case-worker. I managed to explain to her what I really meant that time. But the unemployment benefit had a strict time limit, and despite the mandatory how to get a job workshops they sent me to, I eventually ran over it. I got called in again and told I was going to lose my dole. I had prepared a bunch of counter-arguments to present, but instead I had a shutdown and couldnt speak and I think I sat there sort of rocking and crying silently, which was when my case-worker referred me to the sickness benefit instead.
The process of getting the sickness benefit was slightly more complicated, but considerably more pleasant, than getting the unemployment benefit. You needed six-monthly medical certificates, which involved regular doctors visits, but doctors unlike WINZ staff are kind to their patients and will generally take your word that youre not lying about your symptoms. (Some WINZ staff have worse attitudes than others, but all of them work in a system which rewards suspicion and punishes empathy.) You do have to be getting assistance with your condition if assistance is available, and thats how I ended up getting referred to the graduate clinical psychology student who diagnosed me with Aspergers syndrome as it was still called in 2005 and the succession of students who helped me learn ways to overcome some of the difficulties the condition presents.
Heres the thing, though. To get the sickness benefit your doctor had to explain on the reapplication form, every six months, how your condition prevented you from working in full-time employment. I would tell them that I still suffered from depression and that I had time management issues. These statements werent false, but they also werent the real reason why I couldnt get work. There wasnt an option on the form for This person is able to work but their social disabilities and anxieties prevent them from applying for jobs anywhere near as often as they would have to in order to stand a chance of actually landing one. My depression is mild enough that I can keep it at bay nearly all the time without pharmaceutical assistance, which I know is better fortune than many people enjoy. With counselling Ive learned to manage time well enough that I actually reliably turn up for the beginnings of lectures, an improvement which would astonish anyone who knew me as a student.
So what do you think? Should I have been kicked off the sickness benefit because the difficulties my condition actually caused fell between the cracks of the official criteria? Does that make me a benefit fraudster? Or is the problem an overly harsh, strict, and dismissive social welfare system? What does that imply for other welfare beneficiaries in New Zealand? We have a growing problem with poverty; what does this experience say about its causes? I think I have a pretty good idea. And I have a pretty good idea who to vote for this September.