There has been a lot of talk recently about a Universal Basic Income (UBI). British professor Guy Standing – an advocate of a UBI – was a keynote speaker at the recent Labour conference on “the future of work” in Auckland. The Labour party is currently exploring the feasibility of a UBI as outlined in Gareth Morgan and Susan Guthrie’s book The Big Kahuna. Introducing this policy, Morgan and Guthrie argue, would negate the need for means-tested welfare. It’s an intriguing prospect, not only because of the poverty solution it offers, but also because it would get rid of the stigma associated with means-tested welfare.
Most commentators on a UBI give a cursory mention to the relationship between stigma and means-tested welfare. There is little explanation, however, about what stigma is exactly. Welfare stigma is a relatively general term used to describe a range of experiences relating to the receipt of welfare. Some writers separate welfare stigma into three types: personal, social and institutional. Personal stigma refers to the shame an individual may feel in receiving a benefit, social stigma to a concern on the part of the individual that others are judging them, and institutional stigma to policies and practices that contribute to the shaming of beneficiaries.
There is no doubt that there is a lot of stigma surrounding welfare receipt in New Zealand. Beneficiaries are accused of being lazy, irresponsible, and bad parents. They apparently waste their money on cigarettes and alcohol with no thought for the hard working tax-payers who fund them. The women participating in my research were very aware of these stigmatising discourses framing the receipt of welfare. While they identified personal and social stigma as having an impact on them, they noted that “most of the stigma comes from WINZ”. It seems it is possible to hide your status as a beneficiary in many circumstances, but not within the Work and Income context.
Targeting welfare at those in need is undeniably divisive. It leads to labelling individuals as either deserving or undeserving of assistance: this labelling produces a never-ending debate about where exactly the line is. As a result welfare system administrators are constantly trying to weed out those deemed to be underserving from those who the system declares worthy of help. Research from the United States, United Kingdom and Australia – all countries with means-tested welfare systems – has consistently reported overwhelmingly negative interactions between beneficiaries and welfare service providers. Research participants have used words such as “degrading”, “devaluing”, “dehumanizing” and “belittling” to describe these interactions. In New Zealand research conducted by Community Law Canterbury has highlighted a repetitive theme of negative exchanges between beneficiaries and Work and Income staff, which the authors concluded, pervades all aspects of the benefit system.
Here’s an excerpt from one of the focus groups I ran last year where the women talked about the stigma they experience from Work and Income caseworkers when applying for a Special Needs Grant:
Jackie: [Caseworkers tell you] “You know you’re not allowed to buy alcohol with this green card?” [Laughter] “Well, I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. So cheers thanks. Am I allowed to buy nappies?” Like is that [allowed with] your food grant. [Laughter] That’s it. That’s what I found is that they always tell you, “You’re not allowed to buy alcohol. You’re not allowed to buy cigarettes.”
Caitlin: Like thank you for telling me that.
Jackie: And I’m like, “Oh yep, ‘cause I’m just gonna go and buy that, spend all my food grant money on some alcohol.” Woo hoo
Kiri: It’s like, just for that I’m gonna buy some with my OTHER money [Laughter] that I hid from you [Laughter]
Jackie: I’m gonna go buying real brand stuff instead of home brand stuff [Laughter] just ‘cause you said that.
Kiri: I’m getting Watties today [Laughter]
Jackie: But that’s what it’s like you know.
Holly: Yeah. I hate going in there. I hate ringing them.
Jackie: Or they tell you; “you can’t exchange this card for cash”. I’m like I came here for a food grant. Stop this. Like stop it. Stop acting like I’m this//
Jackie: // emo; I’m not. I’m only here for a food grant for a reason. Yeah, and they just make sure that you feel even worse about yourself for going in there.
Kiri: I know. As if it’s not bad enough.
Caitlin:They honestly shatter you eh? They shatter your confidence.
While the women mock their categorisation as stereotypical beneficiaries who cheat the system and waste their money, the discussion ends seriously. Dealing with Work and Income “shatter[s] you”. What is particularly disturbing about this excerpt is that the women are discussing their experiences of having a Special Needs Grant approved. A grant approval supposedly recognises that the recipient is experiencing significant hardship, yet caseworkers appear overwhelmingly unsympathetic. Reminding the women not to spend their grants on alcohol and cigarettes draws on a discursive interpretation of beneficiaries that implies they do spend their money in this manner. Not only is this a callous way to treat someone asking for help, but there is also clear evidence that it dissuades many in need from claiming benefits to which they are entitled. While discouraging claimants may be the implicit (or explicit) aim of our current welfare system, it seems morally reprehensible to integrate this into a system mandated to help people in need.
With so many countries currently exploring the option of a UBI, the financial viability of the policy has been well debated. Talk of closing tax loopholes in the wake of the Panama papers offers one avenue to affordability for welfare without stigma. We have very clear evidence here in this country that stigma would disappear overnight if we introduced a UBI. NZ Super is a universal benefit and it is stigma free. Those over the age of 65 do not have to prove that they are deserving of assistance: they are simply granted assistance irrespective of their financial situation. As a result the elderly in New Zealand generally have an income that enables them to belong to and participate in society, and do not need to feel ashamed to claim it. Wouldn’t it be great if we could say the same about all of our citizens?
See also: Gray, C (2016). Lone mothers and institutional welfare stigma in Aotearoa New Zealand. J. Maidment & L. Beddoe (eds). Social Policy for Social Work and Human Service in Aotearoa New Zealand: Diverse perspectives. (pp. 316-328). Christchurch: University of Canterbury Press