“I’d like to not feel afraid anymore”

Yesterday the Government’s welfare “reforms” came into effect. The changes reclassified all sickness beneficiaries, sole parents and widows with no children under 14 as “job-seekers”.

That’s about 85,000 people. There’s also a further 1000 sole parents and 1000 people with mental health problems who will now be the responsibility of private contractors who will be paid from $2250 to $16,500 for each person they place in employment for at least a year. Because that’s not creepy at all.

Apparently these beneficiaries are just now becoming job-seekers. Because without this kick-up-the-bum towards their Brighter Future, they would have LOVED to continue receiving the welfare gravy train literally forever.

If you’ve ever experienced having 80 cents left until benefit day after your basic expenses have been paid, if you’ve ever had to sit in a demeaning workshop repeating the word “C.V.” so many times it ceases to have meaning, if you’ve ever begged for a grant for new shoes, you will understand how laughable the idea of being a career beneficiary is.

Only the most disenfranchised people view this punitive, bare-minimum survival as desirable. And that reflects more on how society has let them down than it does their apparent “exploitation” of the system. When we make welfare policies based on the minority who misuse welfare, we cause harm to those who need it.

Out of these new “reforms” it seems particularly deplorable to re-classify sick people as job-seekers. People need the sickness benefit for a range of reasons, and none of them are ever flippant.

Giving up work because you’re too sick is a nightmare scenario. Will you be well again? How will you get by on this miniscule allowance? Want to own your own home one day? You can forget that until you’re well. If you’re ever well. If you do get well, how much will this time off cost you in the competitive employment stakes?

As of yesterday, not only are people receiving the sickness benefit SICK, but they’re also JOB SEEKERS. Because they just need to get MOTIVATED.

I’d also like to note that the invalid’s benefit is now the “assisted living payment”, with extra hoops for the really, really sick too!

If you have any doubt about the realities of chronic sickness then you’re obviously lucky enough to have never had your mental or physical well-being work against your ability to keep employment, and I wish you well with that.

People on the sickness or invalid’s benefit are strong, clever folks who want nothing more than to be well or not to have to justify their ‘inability’ to be well. They are not a distant ‘other’. They are you if your depression overwhelmed you. They are me if my asthmatic lungs stopped responding to medicine. They are my friends and peers and some of them have told me their stories.

Amy* is now a “Job-Seeker” even though she has a job. She’s just too sick to work.

She got sick in February, was hospitalised in March and had to stop work. The doctors are unable to give her a real diagnosis or prognosis, beyond that she’s ill and they hope with rest she will get better.

Even though she’s sick, on the benefit she can’t afford much heating. So she bundles up with layers and counts herself lucky to have an understanding boss who gives her as much work as she can handle that week. The maximum is 7 hours, before Work and Income will stop her benefit.

Amy isn’t sure how she would survive if she couldn’t supplement her benefit with the few hours of work she does now. But remember people, as of yesterday she’s a “Job-Seeker”, because re-classifying people apparently changes their realities.

For Amy, it’s about the fear. She lives hand to mouth each week, always with the threat hanging over her that what little help she’s given could be struck off any moment. Her benefit is changed weekly, and she has to take a new medical certificate in every 12 weeks to prove she’s still ill. This costs her $37 for each doctor’s trip.

“When they tell me they’re putting me on a ‘Jobseeker’s Benefit’ I feel terrified. I wonder what it means, if they’re going to force me back into work and I’ll get sick again, if they’re going to invade my privacy, if they’re going to make me go to terrible “How to Write a CV” classes because they assume I’m not a fucking adult who is currently doing all I can to continue to contribute to society even though getting out of bed some days is hard enough.

It’s incredibly condescending. It’s a system that assumes you don’t want to work, that you’re milking “the taxpayer” (I pay tax, I’ve paid tax while working fulltime up until this year, and I pay tax now because they TAX MY BENEFIT), that you’re sitting round on your ass smoking weed all day.”

Amy considers herself to be far better off than some, and she’s constantly reminded she’s a “lucky case” because she’s entitled to the maximum sickness benefit.

“And funnily enough, I don’t want any of it. The day I can walk in there and say “Hey, guys, thanks, but I don’t need your fucking ‘support’ any more” I will be THRILLED. I cannot WAIT to go back to work and live off my own money, and not feel the shame that is associated with taking any form of support at all.

I’d like to not feel afraid anymore.”

Jo* was diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis when she was 18. She would get life-threateningly sick a once a year since she was 12, and it continued until she became pregnant with her daughter.

While pregnant, she had 11 hospital admissions in 9 months and her health declined from there. By the time she had her pancreas removed she was being hospitalised every 6 weeks.

Now she has brittle diabetes. Years of pain and anti-nausea medication mean Jo developed an addiction problem. She also developed an eating disorder.

Throughout all of this, Jo worked. But when she finally had to give up work 18 months ago, Work and Income wouldn’t put her on the correct benefit for her conditions until she organised to have medical professionals write several letters to her case managers.

Jo now lives in a tiny, poorly-insulated council flat in Christchurch with nothing but a fan wall heater. She considers herself lucky to even have this.

The welfare “reforms” make Jo anxious. She will now be expected to perform self-assessments, which she’s worried about not answering correctly based on how her mental health is on any given day, and not wanting to feel like a failure.

She’s also been informed she will be assessed by a different doctor, despite her difficulties talking about her health history.

“I already hate being on a benefit – I want to be independent and financially secure – I miss working full time but since I’ve been hospitalised 3 times this year already I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do it again.

I feel guilty about being on welfare – WINZ workers in my experience can be very condescending and judgmental and often seem to go out of their way to stop clients from receiving money – these changes can only make such attitudes worse.

I already have a generalized anxiety disorder – these changes give me something ELSE to keep me awake at night.”

I am crying writing this because it’s sad and it’s scary. These people are my friends. I want to fight for them and I want you to fight for them.

I want to trust that if I get sick I won’t also be patronised, considered untrustworthy and have so little I have to decide between turning on my heater and cutting my food budget that week.

We have to do better than this.

Thank you to Amy and Jo for sharing their stories.

*names changed because fuck you.

– See more at: http://thedailyblog.co.nz/2013/07/16/id-like-to-not-feel-afraid-anymore/#sthash.ncbYLAxE.dpuf

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