Insight: The rub between Work and Income and beneficiaries

From Insight, 8:10 am on 15 October 2017

The Ministry of Social Development says its mission is to help people look after themselves - so why are there so many complaints about its lack of humanity?

Living in a cold Dunedin rental house with two children and a heat pump on the blink, "Cleo" just wanted Work and Income to help.

"I just wanted $50 worth of wood and the woman was just like, 'No.' Freezing cold house, in Dunedin, two small children, we are literally freezing and she did not care. It was awful."

Cleo ended up on the benefit after fleeing Christchurch following the earthquake and her relationship breaking up. Sometimes she found staff Work and Income helpful - but more often than not her interactions had been difficult and demeaning.

"I ended up in tears so many times leaving there, or in there, crying demanding to see the manager."

Cleo is one of a million New Zealanders that Work and Income interacts with every year, if you count pensioners and students getting study support. The department manages an annual budget of $25bn - enough to pay for Cleo's wood five million times over.

New Zealanders speak with pride about historic firsts - including being the first country in the English-speaking world to provide a state-funded old age pension. In extending the welfare state, Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage said in 1938 he wanted to see humanity secure against poverty, secure in illness or old age.

But research being done at the University of Auckland seems to suggest New Zealanders might be moving away from the idea of a social welfare safety net and leaning towards greater self-responsibility.

Louise Humpage, an associate professor of sociology, has been studying attitudes in New Zealand toward beneficiaries. She has been using data from questions she included in the  New Zealand Election Study from the 1990s through until 2011 and other, later, material.

Louise Humpage, Associate Professor, University of Auckland

 Louise Humpage, from Auckland University, says more New Zealanders think the unemployed should be doing more for themselves  Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

"In health, education, pensions, there's still really quite substantive support, so you can't say New Zealanders have turned against the welfare state, but we can see there has been a real diminishing in support for the unemployed," she said.

Professor Humpage said the 'unemployed' usually meant sole parents, people on a disability benefit and those without work.

When asked in 1990, "Was it the government's responsibility to ensure a decent standard of living for that group?" 58 percent of respondents said yes. By 2011 that figure dropped to 45 percent.

Another question in 2015 asked why people were in need: "Was it structural issues or laziness and lack of will power?" In 2015, 57 percent said the poor generally, not just unemployed, were in need because of laziness.

"So you have more than half of people saying: 'This is your fault,'" Prof Humpage said.

A 'soul-destroying' experience

Many of the beneficiaries Insight spoke to as part of this investigation felt that judgement strongly, not only from the public, but also the front line staff they came into contact with at Work and Income.

Work and Income offices Hamilton

Work and Income offices Hamilton Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Mary ended up on a benefit more than a decade ago, when her husband became sick and her marriage collapsed. The trauma of having to turn to social welfare is still with her.

"Basically it's a process of saying, I've been brought up to look after myself all my life, I have now reached the point when even I have to admit I'm a complete failure at that and I can't even provide for my own kids, so I'm going to have to go and grovel for somebody else to do it," she said.

That experience was "soul destroying" and she suspected others in a similar situation today may be finding life even harder.

Citizen's Advice Bureau (CAB) has received over 7000 calls about income support, nationwide, for each of the last two years.

Jayne McKendry, Citizen Advice Bereau

CAB's Jayne McKendry says the service varies between Work and Income centres Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The feedback they are getting about Work and Income centres is that the service can vary considerably.

CAB national social policy advisor Jayne McKendry said in some places, people were not being told about all the entitlements they were eligible for.

"Our law gives people entitlement to income support. Work and Income staff are not greater than the law, so why is it so hard to sometimes get your full and correct entitlement out of Work and Income?"

Having an advocate did seem to improve the service being delivered to individuals, she said.

That could be due to three things: the power of having a witness to the interaction, assistance in making sure both sides understood each other and a recognition that advocates had a good knowledge of the system and could help with complaints, Ms McKendry said.

She wanted to see more empathy from front-line staff, and customers being treated with dignity and respect.

'Nose down, tail up' culture to blame

Complaints about people feeling intimidated, belittled or deliberately short-changed, leave former case manager "Margaret" feeling distraught.

Most of her colleagues were there to help people, she said.

Margaret, former case woker at Work and Income

"Margaret" says most  front line workers are there to help people in times of difficulty. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

"This is not a job you do for money, you do it because you've experienced it and you can do better ... or you really have empathy for the situation your clients are in and you want to do whatever you can do in your power to support them to a better place."

But Margaret also described work as "nose down, tail up" with very little time to dwell on an individual client's case or to think outside the box.

There were grey areas when it comes to assessing what people were eligible for, given all the complexities of people's lives. While experienced staff were better at dealing with these areas, she said new staff, or managers who were very numbers-focused, could make decisions quickly and leave clients in difficult situations.

Ministry of Social Development general manager of client service delivery Kay Read said the ministry had been listening to the repeating cycle of complaints and was becoming more focused on customer's needs.

Work and Income was running trials where client managers got to spend more time with younger clients and, last month, the agency began allowing call centre staff to approve hardship grants, including on Saturday mornings.

Kay Read, Group General Manager, Client Services, Ministry of Social Development

MSD's Frontline Service Manager, Kay Read, says the MInistry is striving to become more customer focused. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Sometimes mistakes were made, though, Ms Read said.

"We don't like it, it makes all of us unhappy ... and we move quickly, we try to correct.

"We are determined to be a highly effective, highly empathetic service provider ... and that every time any sort of client has an engagement with us, be it by phone, be it digitally or be it face to face, that it's a positive experience."

"Margaret" and "Cleo" are using different names to hide their identities.

Previous reports in this investigation into the help offered by Work and Income. .

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Insight: A Safety Net with Holes - Scout's story of Work and Income

Insight: Work and Income New Zealand is there to provide help to New Zealanders to get back on their feet, but there are clients who say it has let them down.  That includes Scout, who says the interaction with Work and Income  pushed them to the edge.

"All I needed was support ... I needed to be able to access mental health care and I needed to be able to access a benefit."

Insight: Lawyer urges independent benefit reviews

A committee set up to review benefit decisions has been accused of lacking independence and creating a systemic bias against beneficiaries.

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