With so many people now out of work because of Covid-19 and about to have their first experience of WINZ, Victoria Kaihe reflects on her own time on the benefit.
How did I end up on the benefit?
I’d just finished a BA in linguistics and modern language studies at Victoria University in Wellington, and gone home to Motueka for the summer. Partly to spend time with my friends and family, and partly because I knew there’d be seasonal work for me for those three months.
When the work dried up, and my contract ended, I moved to Palmerston North to be closer to my partner. Luckily for me, my older brother lived there and he’d offered me his spare bedroom while I looked for work.
I wasn’t too worried about the job hunt. I had plenty of work experience under my belt, I knew how to write a CV and cover letter, and I had references. I’d be out of my brother and sister-in-law’s hair and into my own place in no time.
In reality, the old refrain that Dad had spouted at us kids our whole lives rang true: “It’s not what you know. It’s who you know.”
I knew two people. My brother and his wife. My savings quickly dried up, so it was with a heavy heart, and very low self-esteem, that I booked my first-ever WINZ (Work and Income) appointment. I had no idea what to expect.
Two things stick in my memory from that meeting. When discussing my last job, the case manager asked: “Why are you here? If you had a job, why did you leave and come here?”
I was completely taken aback. I explained that I didn’t leave my job, that it ended, that there was no more work for me to do. I felt like I was being accused of something. Did she really think I had left work to . . . go on a benefit?
Apparently, that’s exactly what she thought, because she carried on: “Well, because you left your job, there’s a 12-week standdown period, which would be over by now but, because you didn’t come to see us sooner, I can’t backdate any payments either.”
I tried to point out again that I didn’t leave my job, but she carried on. She seemed annoyed with me for not coming in sooner. I didn’t understand. I’d been living off my savings. Isn’t that what I was supposed to do? No, I didn’t have any cash assets. Didn’t she hear me just say I’d been living off my savings? That’s why I was there.
Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t mention my partner. We weren’t living together — even with Palmerston North’s relatively cheap rent, we couldn’t afford to until I got a job. He wasn’t in a position to support both of us financially. In fact, I barely ever saw him at all because of his work, so I didn’t think there was even any point in mentioning him. Knowing what I know now, if I had mentioned him, I probably would’ve been laughed out of that office.
The second thing that stayed with me was when the case manager condescendingly told me that I was paying board, not rent. I’d only ever paid rent before — I didn’t know there even was a difference. She didn’t deign to explain it to me, or that it meant I was entitled to a smaller accommodation supplement. (For the record, I now know the difference between rent and board, and I was indeed paying board.)
Once I was in the system, things went a little bit smoother, at least from the administrative side. I was assigned a dedicated case manager, and I was extremely lucky that she was one of the decent ones. She actually advocated for me, making sure that the work brokers knew who I was, and occasionally forwarding my CV when she saw an opening.
She didn’t deserve it when, after months of futile job hunting, I cracked and snapped at her. I’d gone in for my regular appointment and she asked the usually innocuous: “How are you?”
Rather than respond with the standard “Not bad”, I answered honestly.
“Pretty terrible, actually.”
“Oh no. What’s wrong?”
“I’ve been unemployed for five months without even a single job interview to show for it. I have no friends here and no real way of making any. I don’t have financial independence and, therefore, have very little agency over my own life — and you seriously want to ask how I’m doing?”
To her credit, she didn’t offer any of the platitudes I’d heard so many times in the previous months. Like: “Keep your chin up. Keep trying. Something will come along. You’ll find something.” (These are all things I’ve been hearing a lot in the last year, too.) She apologised, and we continued with the appointment like nothing had happened.
I was one of the lucky ones. I did have a family member to somewhat rely on, but this was the only thing that made it possible for me to survive on a benefit. I received just enough to cover my board and the two simple dinners a week that were part of my agreed domestic contribution to the household.
If I was particularly creative with the meals I chose to prepare, sometimes I could afford to top up my phone. I couldn’t afford to go to the doctor for my usual scripts — I was lucky that my mum was able to get them for me, and sent them in the mail. I couldn’t afford hobbies to fill my time.
I couldn’t afford to visit my friends who kept asking when I was coming to see them. (It was no coincidence that the only two friends who never asked this, were also the only two who had ever been on a benefit.) I couldn’t afford to get the bus into town for my appointments at WINZ, and I couldn’t bring myself to trouble my heavily pregnant sister-in-law for a ride, so I’d walk the five kilometres into town, in my “interview clothes”. And back again afterwards.
All told, it took me eight months to get a job. I think I got off lightly — it’s hard to know for sure. But I do know that, even with a fair amount of privilege on my side, it was one of the worst, most depressing phases of my life. I now truly believe that our social welfare system isn’t designed to help struggling New Zealanders. Even calling it “social welfare” feels wrong because that doesn’t describe what I’ve seen of the system, either as a client, or an employee.
Yes, I did land a job with the Ministry of Social Development — for just over two years, in StudyLink, Senior Services, and Work and Income. It wasn’t all bad, but it wasn’t very good either. Sometimes I wondered if it was worse than being on the benefit — but that’s a long story, for another day.
Since leaving MSD, I’ve had a number of jobs. I worked in TV for a year, looked into coding, and taught virtual English classes to children in China. And now I’m back in Wellington.
But I’m once again on the job hunt. (Although, after landing a temporary contract to create an app, I now know that’s the path I want to be on.)
I’ve had a few of these in-between, transitional phases in my life. One of the biggest anxieties I have around being unemployed is wondering how to explain these gaps in my CV. I feel as though I’m expected to have done something amazing with that time, or at the very least, something that could be deemed “productive”.
The boring truth is this: I was looking for a job. I wasn’t ever out of work by choice. I want to work. I was scanning job boards every day, constantly tweaking my cover letters and CV hoping that, maybe this time, I’d got the phrasing just right and I’d catch the recruiter’s eye.
It’s all very well to suggest things like starting a course, and it’s something I’ve done in the past — but it’s easier said than done. Sure, I have a lot of time on my hands now, but any day I might actually get a job offer, and then what? And do I really want to be adding more to my student loan?
All the while, I worry about my skills getting rusty. Do I even have any skills? Are my skills and experience unique and relevant, or just a god-awful mess that makes me look like an inconsistent flake? Am I actually good at that thing, or have I just convinced myself I am because I want it to be true? Do I bother expending emotional energy writing applications for jobs that I’m wildly overqualified for, in the hopes of getting something?
I’ve rarely ever got a job through the normal application process. What if every job I’ve ever had was just because of nepotism, or someone taking pity on me? Why did I study something that interests me but has no obvious career path? Why didn’t I study medicine? Or accounting? Or computer science? Law? I wanted to be a lawyer once — why didn’t I do that? And what about my whakapapa? Am I being a good descendant? What would be the best use of my privilege to benefit Māori?
This is a pretty normal thought cycle on any given day. I feel like I haven’t taken a proper deep breath in months. Somehow, though, I still have these bizarre feelings of guilt, like I should be grateful and not complain.
I think my experiences of MSD aren’t uncommon. My case wasn’t one of the newsworthy extremes. As far as I’m aware, I never had my privacy breached by the MSD as has happened to other beneficiaries. I was never confronted with stolen, intimate images of myself, domestic violence reports, or records of private messages. As someone who is white-passing, I don’t believe I ever experienced racial profiling at WINZ. I didn’t have to face the stigma that solo mothers are met with.
I was probably very typical, yet it was nevertheless demoralising, dehumanising, and I still feel the effects of it on my mental health six years later.
I know that there are good people at MSD. I worked with them, I befriended them, I hope that I was one of them.
But I also experienced a culture that doesn’t value kindness, empathy, or integrity, things that everyone deserves to be treated with. Muck flows downhill, and unfortunately, our system puts anyone who needs assistance at the bottom.
The case managers, the call centre staff, the processors, the social workers, and everyone else on the frontline gets placed a scant step above them and there’s only so much they can do to hold back the flow.
Our whole social welfare system is in desperate need of an overhaul — in its legislation and policies, in the way assistance is distributed, in the way it treats both the people administering it and the people who need its support. And that change needs to come from the top.
As for me, the search for work goes on. Once again, I feel as though I have very little control over my own life. I don’t qualify for any kind of government assistance this time, because of my partner’s income — and that in itself is an issue with wider implications.
But you know what? I’m grateful that I don’t have to deal with WINZ right now.
Victoria is of Ngāpuhi and Ngāti te Ata descent. She grew up with her three siblings in the South Island, and spent much of her adolescence tramping in the Abel Tasman. Her parents still live in the house she grew up in, and she returns there often. She has lived in Germany, Palmerston North, Auckland, but her favourite is Wellington, where she now lives with her partner and their two cats.
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