'Help given with one hand, taken away with the other': Widowed mum speaks out about experience with Work and Income

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 widowed mother-of-two has told Newshub the welfare system needs to make room for humanity and should stop treating those needing financial support with suspicion.

Victoria *, 44, says she has had vastly different experiences at Work and Income (WINZ), according to which case manager she has been assigned.

The Aucklander describes the first day she visited Work and Income to apply for the Sole Parent Benefit after her husband died.

"The case manager was typing away, she didn't look at me, and said, 'when did you and your husband split up?'

"Even to tick the 'widow' box on my file had been so hard," she says.

"And to have someone who didn't read the file and wasn't prepared ... I remember looking at her and being devastated. And angry.

"To her, I was just one more person trying to get something from the Government."

Minister for Social Development, Carmel Sepuloni, says treating people with dignity should be prioritised.

"I've been clear with the Ministry that it needs to, and can do, better," she told Newshub.

"I expect that people are treated with dignity when they're seeking support from WINZ."

At another Work and Income visit, Victoria recounts a positive and constructive meeting.

"This other case manager seemed to remember me, she gave me a hug and said how sorry she was about [my husband's] passing.

"I found out from her I could receive the Disability Allowance because she just saw me as a hurting human being and helped me."

Victoria, who has experienced significant mental distress particularly in the wake of her husband's passing, says case managers putting humanity and empathy first would make a big difference.

"[That way] There's another human being there who understands the system and, instead of being a gatekeeper, it's 'we're going to work together to get you the help you need'."

But Kieran Moorhead, communications manager at mental health consumer advocacy group Changing Minds, says it's still too hard to get support for counselling for people experiencing mental distress.

"Counselling is not easily accessed through the disability allowance as the criteria is a 'disability that lasts for 6 months', and mental health doesn't neatly fit into these type of disability criteria like physical disabilities do."

There is a financial shortfall too.

"The allowance is only up to about $60 so it's not enough to cover regular counselling and they only fund 10 sessions as a general rule."

Victoria, who currently works part-time, says the income support is also problematic when it comes to those on temporary contracts trying to support a family.

"It's help that's given with one hand and taken away with the other."

She says the result is falling into a "mental, emotional, physical downward spiral".

"I can't even give my kid $5 to have an ice cream with their friend."

She says it would also help if the Work and Income office environment was better fit-for-purpose.

"You feel so vulnerable [in the offices], it's so in-the-open. You feel so invaded, exposed. It doesn't cater for safety or privacy."

Victoria believes widows need a lot more help than what they get, when things are sensitive and the person's mental state is fragile.

"I wish I could look after my kids without having to depend on Government aid."

Mark Goldsmith, Regional Commissioner, says Work and Income representatives talk to around 28,000 people each day to make sure they get everything they are entitled to.

"We want people to feel mana manaaki when they deal with us, care, honour, respect.

"If a client feels that we haven't got it right, we want to talk to them about their experience. We want our clients to have a positive experience every time."

A recent pilot programme in four Work and Income service centres, along with other initiatives, aims to improve the service experience.

*Newshub has agreed to use a pseudonym for privacy reasons.


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