WINZ clients 'beg' for entitlements

The Ministry of Social Development is in the middle of a welfare system consultation. From September to November 2018, an advisory group heard from people in 16 centres around the country. Minister of Social Development Carmel Sepuloni told Newshub the Government has committed to the overhaul of the welfare system to make it fairer for all New Zealanders. "We want to ensure the system is fit for purpose and can respond to the social, economic and technological changes experienced over the last few decades and well into the future." The advisory group will report back to the minister at the end of February.

A single mother-of-two with a Masters degree says she can't imagine surviving on the welfare system without support from her parents.

Katie*, told Newshub she questions how single parents, unable to live at home, survive in Auckland on Work and Income (WINZ) support.

"I first went to WINZ with a two-year-old son and a three-week-old daughter, when I came out of an incredibly destructive relationship.

"I was lucky to have a nice WINZ case manager who gave me the maximum I could get."

Even so, it wasn't enough to live in Auckland, Katie says.

"I got $500 a week, and rent for a two-bedroom place was a minimum of $400.

"I don't see how single parents, without having family to live with, can survive. I don't know what I would have done without my parents' support."

Tim*, a single father-of-two who works as a part-time art tutor during the school-term, says he went a whole year without receiving the support he was entitled to over term breaks.

He explains how he learned of the support.

"I had saved money to get through the Christmas break, but I had a raft of unexpected car issues that used up $2000. Only talking to WINZ at that point in financial hardship, did I find out I had been entitled to a benefit during the holidays for the last year."

He said it was a constant battle to receive income support.

"Unless you're in desperate circumstances, they don't tell you what's available. You have to go in and fight for what you're entitled to. They give you as little as possible."

The problem was compounded by the lack of consistency of advice.

"What I qualify to apply for depends on who I talk to. Over the term 2-3 school holidays, I received significantly less than the holiday before that.

"I called WINZ and they said I was rightly entitled to the higher rate all along, but that I'd have to appeal the decision. So I wrote the appeal, and then I never heard back. I've given up on that one at this point."

Work and Income Auckland Regional Commissioner Mark Goldsmith says WINZ launched an online eligibility guide in June 2018 to help address issues such as this, and remains "committed to helping Tim".

"He gets child support, accommodation supplement, and also family tax credits. We also provided further financial assistance when he needs support for food and rent arrears, as well as help during the school holidays."

Tim believes he has had more success than others in "pushing" to obtain what he is entitled to.

"As a relatively well-presented white male, I get believed a lot more than other people I've seen. If you weren't confident or had a language issue it'd be much harder," he believes.

Katie says education also comes into the picture.

"I have a Masters and I still found it hard to get what I was entitled to. If you can't read or write, it'd just be so difficult."

She gives an example.

"At one point WINZ stopped my childcare subsidy incorrectly and they wouldn't back-pay me for it. I had to make a formal complaint, and after that one day someone rang me and said that I had been right all along, and finally it was sorted out."

Minister of Social Development Carmel Sepuloni says this sort of mistake is a problem she has taken steps to address.

"I asked MSD to tighten up guidelines for the use of suspensions, including having a second person sign off on the decision.

"That's resulted in less benefits being incorrectly stopped because MSD is applying the policy correctly."

Ms Sepuloni added that, in 2018, the Ministry of Social Development (which includes WINZ) took steps to make their communications easier to understand.

"It [MSD] sends out six million letters a year. In the past, the language in the letters has been hard to understand and intimidating.

"They're now simple and written in a way that clients know their obligations and entitlements - that's just common sense and well overdue."

Katie says WINZ staff need to be aware that people approaching the agency often do so in their most vulnerable moments, when they are in particular need of compassion and empathy. She said it was time to change how we think about income support.

"Support from WINZ is something you're entitled to as a tax-payer.

"You should be treated with that same level of customer service that you'd expect a business or any other organisation to treat you with," she says.

Ms Sepuloni agrees.

"I've been clear with the Ministry [of Social Development] that it needs to, and can, do better. I expect that people are treated with dignity when they're seeking support from WINZ."

Tim says he has noticed a culture shift at WINZ under the new government, but that the stigma associated with fighting for your entitlements lingers.

"You internalise the feeling you're begging for something, but actually you're entitled to it."

He emphasised the change that would make the biggest single difference for him and his kids, would be to increase core benefit levels.

"If the core benefit was enough to live on, then the adjustments to the other types of support received in addition wouldn't matter so much."

*Newshub has agreed to use a pseudonym (Katie) and first name only (Tim) for privacy reasons.