The Implacable Face Of An Implacable Regime: Victor Hugo's unforgettable bloodhound, Inspector Javert (played here by Russell Crowe) pursued the redeemed hero, Jean Valjean, with a zeal bordering on fanaticism. The so-called "low trust clients" of WINZ who, like Valjean, may have broken the law simply in order to survive, must now feel as though they are living in the pages of Les Miserables.
EARLIER THIS WEEK the Associate Minister for Social Development, Chester Borrows, announced a new category of beneficiary. From Monday, 14 October 2013, he said, Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) would be applying the new “low trust client” rules.
According to the Minister, “low trust clients” are people already convicted of welfare fraud, or who have “had overpayments established following a fraud investigation”.
He expected the new rules would affect around 1,500 people per year.
“Give a dog a bad name and you may hang him by it” runs the proverb. And it is certainly very difficult to think of a reason why politicians and bureaucrats would want to pin the “low trust client” tag on beneficiaries other than their wanting to “hang” them by it.
Of course the State doesn’t hang people anymore – at least, not literally. (Although I’m sure there are more than a few New Zealanders who would gladly string up all these “welfare cheats”!) But those who have made it their business to make sense of MSD policy (Sue Bradford, for example) are in no doubt that the true objective of these highly provocative new rules is to make “low trust clients” feel so utterly wretched and worthless that they exit the welfare system altogether.
From the point of view of the MSD and WINZ, purging the welfare rolls of low trust clients is a “win/win” solution. Not only is the state spared the expense of paying out legitimate entitlements, but the MSD’s new policy practically guarantees a sharp decline in all claims – fraudulent and legitimate.
Few New Zealanders would have any idea of how fraught the entire experience of signing-on for, receiving and retaining a social welfare benefit can be. The whole process is anything but straightforward and to a great many people seems calculated to belittle, stress and all-too-frequently humiliate the applicant/recipient.
The most vivid memory most people take away from their first visit to WINZ is how long they were made to wait. Even those who followed the rules assiduously: made appointments and arrived ahead of time; will regale their family and friends with horror stories of being made to wait for hours at a time.
Many people who live at some distance from their nearest WINZ office and are reliant on public transport simply cannot wait, and so miss their appointments. Predictably, missing an appointment with one’s WINZ case-worker is regarded as a serious misdemeanour: do it too often and one’s benefit may be docked – or even stopped.
Only rarely will these citizens encounter a WINZ staffer who clearly and comprehensively spells out exactly what they are entitled by law to receive from the state. The consensus view among those receiving WINZ “assistance” is that the MSD operates on the rule-of-thumb that if applicants don’t ask, then WINZ staff are not obliged to tell.
At the average WINZ office what you don’t know (and are not told) can prove extremely costly – both to you and to those who depend on you.
Even the much-decried “benefit fraud” isn’t always what it seems.
WINZ’s over-riding priority is to get people off welfare and into work. Unfortunately, it does not distinguish part-time and/or casual work from full-time employment. At WINZ, a job’s a job, and the moment you get one you’re no longer entitled to a Jobseeker’s Allowance. And if your job only lasts a month? Well, that’s too bad, because now there’s a “stand down” period lasting several weeks for you to get through before once again becoming eligible for state assistance.
In the meantime there’s rent, food and power bills to be paid. What WINZ calls fraud is often no more than the actions of desperate people doing whatever they have to do to keep themselves and their families fed and clothed and a roof over their head.
It’s what makes the note of smug self-righteousness in Mr Borrows’ latest announcement so very hard to take.
Like Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, New Zealand’s beneficiaries find themselves pursued by a state as remorseless and relentless as the implacable Inspector Javert.
The great French novelist coined phrases like “social asphyxia” do describe the constricting effects of poverty and injustice, but even the mighty Hugo would have tipped his hat to a phrase so utterly suffocating in its unkindness as “low trust client”.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 18 October 2013.