Since the shootings at the Ashburton Work and Income office, there has been a lot of talk about the need for additional security for Work and Income staff. Anxiety about staff safety in the aftermath of the shootings led to MSD increasing security guards from an average of one per office to up to three. Yesterday I read Judge Jan-Marie Doogue’s ruling that offices must still be made safer. While obviously people should not be threatened in their places of work, what does the need for increased security say about our welfare system?
A few weeks ago I quoted a story from Vicki – one of the participants in my research – as she talked about her run in with security:
… So I went in [to Work and Income] this day and as soon as I walked in, the doors opened and then it had a half-circle of chairs sitting and that’s where everybody had to wait. So, I went up to the desk and I said, “What’s happening here?” and that’s the new waiting area. So I was a bit upset and I said to the lady at the desk, I said, “No, this is not on. It’s like we’re all sitting like animals in a cage.
Vicki reported that every time a pedestrian walked past outside, the doors swung open revealing the Work and Income clients sitting inside facing the door. For obvious reasons Vicki wasn’t happy. She felt that the set up was “humiliating”. The phrase “an animal in a cage” emphasises how she felt like a zoo animal on display for passers-by to watch. She then goes on to explain how she reacted:
And yeah, so I didn’t swear, I raised my voice a little bit and I said, “No, this is wrong, you can’t do this! This is humiliating.” And blow me down; I saw her eyes flick and the next minute two security guys come over. And I thought, “Oh my God, are they gonna frog march me outta here?” I wanted to say, [mouths “fuck off”] but I couldn’t, because … I needed my appointment. So, I refused to sit, so I stood to the side and the security guards stood with me.
Vicki’s image of being a caged animal emphasises how powerlessness she felt in this situation. She reinforces this with her account of two security guards who approach her with the intent of “frog march[ing]” her out of the offices. The use of the word “frog march” – a phrase that is imbued with the imagery of force – further emphasises her lack of influence in this situation. Vicki can be quiet or she can continue objecting and be forced to leave without the assistance she desperately needs. It’s really not a choice at all. In the end she manages to negotiate a less visible space for herself, setting herself apart from the other clients by standing to the side so she cannot be seen when the doors swing open.
Work and Income, like welfare organisations in the United States, Britain and Australia, go to some lengths to protect itself from clients. It hires security and has procedures designed to ensure that any dissent is immediately checked. Clients need to conform emotionally as well as physically. They can cry, they can demonstrate shame, but they can’t get angry. The institutional response shows a real anxiety about the potential of emotion to transform into something more threatening. In Vicki’s narrative, she is containing her anger “I didn’t swear”, but at the same time she wants to address her concerns with the receptionist. She raises her voice and states, “this is wrong” a response that is immediately interpreted as aggressive. Security guards are called and Vicki quickly realises that she needs to be quiet.
The very presence of the security guards constitutes Vicki and all other Work and Income clients in a particular way. Guards are employed to protect Work and Income staff from Vicki and others like her. Security officers carry with them the suggestion of fear: the underlying subtext behind employing guards in offices is that staff members are afraid of clients. Beneficiaries are constructed as emotionally unpredictable and potentially violent, and caseworkers need to be safeguarded from them and their anger.
Ironically though it is beneficiaries who talk of being frightened by their dealings with Work and Income. They are frightened of staff and frightened of losing their entitlements. Many have few options other than welfare. The stress of poverty can make people emotional, particularly when faced with an unsympathetic welfare system administered by seemingly indifferent staff. Objecting to being treated poorly by an organisation that should be there to help does not make someone a threat, it makes them human. Security measures that prevent beneficiaries from expressing these objections, constituting them in the process as violent and unreasonable, simply serve to dehumanise them.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to treat the underlying problem rather than the symptom? Welfare recipients who become angry at Work and Income often do so for good reason. They are not the problem. The problem is a system that fails to meet their needs – despite being mandated to do so – and blames them for becoming upset about it. Vicki’s account illustrates the impossible situation that clients at Work and Income are put in. They can either accept a situation that is degrading; or they can object, be classified as dangerous, and lose access to a caseworker. There is no middle ground. This is the situation now before MSD changes its security policy. I can only imagine how difficult it is likely to become for beneficiaries in the future. There seems little doubt that any ‘upgrade’ of offices, in the interests of safety, will work to further marginalise beneficiaries by categorising them as a violent threat rather than clients in need of assistance.
Hoggett, P, (2000). Emotional life and the politics of welfare. London: Macmillian Press
Pinkney, S. (2011). Participation and emotions: Troubling encounters between children and social welfare professionals Children & Society. 25, 37-46