It seems impossible to discuss the experience of receiving welfare in New Zealand without mentioning shame. Shame, or some variant of it, is the emotion most commonly used to describe people’s encounters with the welfare system. In a recent Stuff article, Vicky Anderson wrote about her experience of visiting Work and Income. A beneficiary she spoke to described visits to the offices as “demeaning”. After highlighting the attitude of a particular staff member – a woman who she witnessed speak abruptly and impatiently to a number of beneficiaries – Anderson advised clients to “leave your dignity at the guarded door”. In another Stuff article published this week, an anonymous contributor again used the word “demeaning” to describe their experiences at Work and Income.
Emotional responses in the Work and Income environment appear to conform to set patterns. Those who receive welfare describe feeling shame. Work and Income staff members on the other hand are frequently described as expressing anger. This shame/ anger emotional configuration is one that staff and clients at Work and Income rework over and over again. Clients say they feel shame at having to ask for help. Staff members are discourteous and quick to anger. Clients respond to this by describing more feelings of shame. Emotions in this context are configured along the lines of structural power. Caseworker anger is legitimised by their position of power. Beneficiaries are powerless in the Work and Income context, and cannot respond emotionally in any other way than to express shame.
When I have spoken to beneficiaries about their experiences at Work and Income, shame is not the only emotion that they have described feeling. As one woman told me “case managers are … interacting with us and they’re making us angry”. Accounts of these everyday interactions at Work and Income are often characterised by anger, but anger that is suppressed in that social context. There is a very clear understanding of appropriate emotional reactions in Work and Income offices and of the repercussions for those who do not adhere to these. Here are a couple of examples from my research:
Amanda: But when I had an actual caseworker it was just humiliating and I would just leave with this fury, just this tight fury because I felt like she was really condescending even though I’m pretty sure I’m more educated than her. I just felt like I was being spoken down to and just treated like an absolute idiot with no way of making it in the world.
Jessie: That’s hard too if you go in there [Work and Income] and you’re treated really badly; if you kick up a fuss about it then they’ll just kick you out of the building.
Mere: And there’s that worry as well that you could lose your benefit. So you can’t really pipe up and say, “Why are you looking at me like that?”
Jessie: It’s like stand over tactics.
Amanda describes her past interactions with her case manager as “humiliating”: humiliation that quickly transformed into “fury”. She was not able to express this, however, but had to contain it – at least until she left her meeting. This is the appropriate response. As Mere explains, reacting in a negative way can have significant repercussions. Jessie’s response, which describes “stand over tactics”, implies that she feels forced into emotional compliance. The security guards can “kick you out of the building”, and there is the threat of losing entitlements. While being “spoken down to” or being looked at in a way that implies contempt may provoke feelings of anger, this anger needs to be suppressed. The range of emotional expression available to clients and staff at Work and Income is vastly different. In contrast to their caseworkers who “can speak to me however they want” beneficiaries are constantly aware of the need to moderate their emotions. There is a social hierarchy to emotionality and the ability to express anger is a privilege.
Anger is recognised by many of the beneficiaries I have spoken to as a valid response to innumerable situations they encounter at Work and Income: despite the fact that they should not show it in that context. Anger has a practical purpose in that it enables the expression of frustration. It allows you to communicate to yourself and to others that something is wrong. It can assist in the regaining of some previously lost status. In writing about feminist anger, Sara Ahmed reframes anger in a positive way as creativity and passion, citing activist Audre Lorde in claiming that, “anger is loaded with information and energy”. Anger has the potential to be constructed not merely as “against something” but as “for something” else. The “something” that the women I spoke to were for was a way of responding to the assumption at Work and Income that they should feel shame.
In this way anger can be seen as transformational, enabling those on welfare to glimpse the possibility of challenging their discourteous treatment by caseworkers. Beneficiaries, however, have much to lose from becoming angry. A number of the women in my research described angry outbursts that resulted in them losing the help that they needed. This emphasises the way in which the power imbalances that are an inherent part of welfare receipt in this country extend all the way to emotions. Shame may be not be the only emotion that beneficiaries experience at Work and Income, but it is the only one that is appropriate for them to display in that context.
Reference: Ahmed S (2014) The cultural politics of emotion. New York: Routledge.