'We're hidden' - unemployed man one of many denied benefit help

From Checkpoint, 5:42 pm on 13 May 2020

A Canterbury man who cannot find work or access a benefit says he is part of a growing group of New Zealanders whose unemployment is hidden from any official figures.

Man trying to find work with online job search engine on tablet.

Photo: 123RF

Mark, who lives with his wife, has been working and paying his taxes since he was 15 years old.

But last October he was made redundant from his job as a school caretaker and has been searching for work ever since.

"Between the lockdown, and being 63 this year, it's proved to be a bit of a mission really."

His redundancy pay ran out at the end of January, and with no work in sight he turned to the Ministry for Social Development to see what help he could get.

But because Mark's wife is still employed he cannot get the jobseeker benefit - despite their finances being completely separate.

He said that was putting immense pressure on their relationship - and he does not feel optimistic about the future.

"It's a whole lot of things - it's working from home, it's being stuck at home, it's having no job, it's having no future. It's just hopeless. You can't see the light at the end of the tunnel, there's just nothing there."

Mark expected the situation to get worse as time goes on, as his wife will have to find the money to cover all the household bills, without his pay to support her.

"I just don't think it's fair, when we've both paid taxes all our lives, and we've supported a lot of other people in the community and when it comes to the crunch there's just absolutely nothing there."

Mark said he had been shocked to see the realities of New Zealand's welfare system, and had struggled to access his superannuation which had made things even harder.

Social justice group ActionStation has been contacted by hundreds of people in a similar situation to Mark.

Campaigner Ruby Powell said Covid-related job losses meant thousands of people were quickly realising how harsh New Zealand's welfare system is.

She said they struggled to get support and when they did were shocked to see how little they received on the benefit - with a single person without children receiving $210 a week.

Last year the government's own welfare expert advisory group recommended changing the relationship rules for accessing benefits.

Lawyer Dr Huhana Hickey was a member of the group and said the rules were driving people into poverty and benefits needed to be paid to individuals regardless of their relationship status.

"It doesn't mean that the one person earning is able to meet the cost-needs of both people - it means that they're just ignoring a great need in one area, and relationships has been one of the biggest barriers (to accessing the benefit) for a lot of people."

She said the problem was especially bad for older people or those with disabilities.

"Because people don't employ 60 year olds, they don't employ 50 year olds, these days they don't even want to employ any much over the age of 45, and so these people either have to live off their partner or they've got to find anything else. And sometimes they can't do that."

About 40,000 people have gone on the benefit since February - but Mark said that was not the whole picture.

"When the government goes on TV every day and they quote unemployment figures and all that, that's not the true figure that's going on in the country - people like me, and there must be others in my situation, they are not counting in.

"We're a hidden lot of people out there - we just don't know what to do. There's absolutely no help for us," he said.