Only a few weeks to go until the general election in New Zealand, and with the incumbent government treating it as a foregone conclusion that they’ll be back in charge, it seems some of them can’t even be bothered showing up for public meetings in their electorates.
Paula Bennett, for example. She who – in the event of an election win – is about to preside over major changes to welfare that will affect people with experience of mental illness that are currently unable to work.
The Herald on Sunday last week reported about the large number of people who are on sickness benefits due to depression or other mental illnesses, along with the positive recovery story of Veronica Linfoot:
“Linfoot now works fulltime and is in control of her life. She has just finished a job at the Heart Foundation and is temping while looking for another fulltime role.
Getting back to work was the key. “Keeping a routine and keeping in life is the most important thing.” Linfoot said more needed to be done to help sufferers when they were ready to re-enter the workforce. “There needs to be help and coaching with CV and interview preparation but with a mental health focus. At the moment, there is no help like that available.””
Getting back to work. Getting back to work. Getting back to work. Yes, when you’re unable to work because of a mental illness, that little sentence rotates in your brain like a stuck record.
During my recent three-week breakdown, it plagued me constantly, and I knew that I had a secure job to return to. God only knows what it’s like for someone who is more seriously ill, with no work prospects, and like Veronica says of her darker moments, can’t “even get out of bed to go to the toilet”.
So what’s going to happen to sickness beneficiaries? Well, first of all, we’re going to give them new names – job seekers. This from a government that railed against “political correctness” and “social engineering” while it was in opposition.
If the phrase “job seekers” sounds eerily familiar to you, then maybe it’s because you’ve heard it somewhere before:
Yes, your sickness benefit is to be renamed “Jobseeker Support”, and according to the government factsheet:
“This benefit has a clear work expectation for all beneficiaries of it, though some will have temporary exemptions based on individual circumstances. The majority of Jobseekers will be capable of taking work as it becomes available.”
Yes, you vill be capable of verking! Because work fixes everything. Any work, it would seem. Whatever’s available. Former accountant suffering from a stress burnout? There’s a job going at McDonalds – off you go. Would you like to upsize your dignity for $1?
What evidence has the government used for making these changes? Paula’s ahead of us there. From the Q&A:
What medical evidence have you based the policy of putting work obligations on sickness beneficiaries on?
Society’s expectations about work have changed. Not only can many sick and disabled people contribute through employment, there is evidence that points to improvements in health and wellbeing through taking up appropriate work.
Translation: “society” doesn’t want you bludging anymore. It’s time you started to “contribute” – not for your own wellbeing, but for…whose? The right-wing voter base?
Similar welfare reforms in the UK, also fuelled by an underlying assumption that people with mental illnesses on benefits “aren’t sick really”, has fuelled counter-campaigning from organisations like Mind.
Mind ingeniously produced a faux-tabloid called The Daily Stigma which volunteers handed out at busy points of transit. Cleverly playing to stereotypes with a screaming front page headline “BENEFIT FRAUD EXPOSED”, the main article turned the perception of bludging on its head by exposing the real fraudsters – a welfare system forcing assessment onto a vulnerable group of people:
“Despite widespread reports of people cheating the system, The Daily Stigma can reveal that only 0.5% of the money spent on Incapacity Benefit is lost to false claims. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of genuinely disabled and ill people are living in fear of having their benefits taken away while they are still too sick to work.”
Do we have similar figures on false claims in New Zealand? Has any journalist asked for them?
No, because it seems we’ve swallowed a discourse even more damaging: simultaneously believing that people are genuinely sick, and that work is the best form of treatment for their woes.
Is there a danger of having your benefit taken away under Paula’s new scheme? Back to the FAQ:
Will people lose their benefits if they can’t get a job?
No. People are expected to be trying to get work and they will need to show what efforts they are making. They will only face sanctions if they make no effort.
What sanctions apply to people who don’t meet their work obligations?
The same graduated sanctions will apply under the new system as they do now.
Jobseekers are expected to be available for and looking for work unless they have a temporary exemption. Those who do not make genuine efforts will face sanctions.
Sanctions… sounds like that thing the UN do to countries when we want them to stop murdering and torturing citizens. Usually involves things like cutting off aid. Weasel word, much? Maybe we could ask Paula this if she shows up to one of her meetings.
So how will you be assessed to see if you’re capable of working?
How will people be assessed if they are sick or disabled?
There will be a stronger focus on what people can do, not what they can’t do. Health professionals will provide medical information to allow Work and Income to ascertain what kind of work an individual can do and how long they may be exempted from being available for work.
Those who are permanently or severely disabled, severely mentally ill or terminally ill, will be fast-tracked into the Supported Living Payment.
In addition, we are going to introduce much more comprehensive work capacity assessments to get a better picture of what people can do and to determine what the right obligation is for each person.
An expert Health and Disability Panel will give specialist advice on new assessment processes.
Let’s see…your medical records will be handed over to Work & Income (presumably with your consent, although this isn’t made clear) so that a bunch of people completely unqualified and ignorant about mental health issues can make an assessment about whether or not you can work. Given that the directive from above is “make them work”, you can see how most of these assessments are likely to turn out:
“The Government is reforming New Zealand’s welfare system with an active, work-based approach, starting with the belief that most people can and will work…The expectation is for the majority of beneficiaries to be available and looking for work.”
Fairly unambiguous. After you’re assessed, a panel of unnamed health and disability experts will sit around having cups of tea and develop sets of criteria completely divorced from the reality of everyday living circumstances just to keep the whole shitty new system ticking along.
How can I make such guesses? Because it’s already happening in the UK. People with genuine mental illnesses are being assessed as “fit for work” and threatened with sanctions, while for some the mere idea of being reassessed is putting an added strain on their already stressful situation: Back to The Daily Stigma from Mind:
“We deal with many people who have been told they are ‘fit for work’ under the new system despite experiencing serious mental health problems. The other day I was speaking to a man who has schizophrenia. He has it quite well under control, but still struggles with paranoia and can’t cope with much pressure.
He’s been found ‘fit for work’ so no has to look for work, but the anxiety caused by the assessment process and now the prospect of job hunting is really destabilising him. I’m very worried it’s going to push him back into severe illness, and last time that happened he ended up in hospital for two months. But what can we do? (benefits adviser)”
But it doesn’t end there. Paula has not ruled out that sickness beneficiaries may also be subject to the demeaning new “payment card” policy being forced onto youth beneficiaries, changes which include:
- Essential costs like rent and power being paid directly on behalf of the young person;
- Money for basic living costs like food loaded on to a new payment card that could not be used for thing like alcohol or cigarettes;
- A limited amount of money for young people to spend at their discretion.
Well, not to worry. At least we can sleep well knowing that further stigma and discrimination being heaped upon the mentally ill is saving the country money:
The reforms will cost $130 million a year, with an expected saving of $1 billion over four years.
Ooh, a billion that’s a lot. Compares well with the following spends:
- Amount borrowed by the government last year alone to fund tax cuts for the rich: $1.1 billion
- Cost of staging the Rugby World Cup: over $400 million
- Estimated cost of bailing out AMI Insurance: $1 billion
There’s been a lot of focus on the potential damage being done by these welfare reforms to young mothers on the DPB and youth in general. With the large amount of people with mental illnesses on welfare, the implications of these changes affect a far larger group.
And there’s little evidence that any of the money “saved” by these initiatives will be invested in support services that are desperately needed for the “unemployable” people with a black hole in their CV after leaving the workforce due to mental illness.