“It’s just bullshit”: Welfare Discourse and the Special Needs Grant

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It is troubling that when Work and Income caseworkers have met welfare recipients who are working hard but struggling financially to raise children on a benefit, they still manage to arrive at opinions about their character. I’ve listened to the same stories of hardship told to staff at Work and Income, and found them heart breaking. So how is it possible that some people do not? I’m sure that after listening to stories day after day you do get inured to them. But I also suspect that language and practices commonly utilised at Work and Income have shaped the way that welfare workers perceive their clients.

The experience of applying for a Special Needs Grant is a good example of this. Special Needs Grants are non-recoverable emergency payments that may be granted if someone has urgent costs and does not have the financial means to meet these. When a Special Needs Grant is approved a case manager will always emphasise that funds cannot be used for the purchase of alcohol or cigarettes. Perhaps to those who do not rely on welfare, this may seem reasonable. Many of the women I spoke to, however, were offended by the implication that they would apply for a grant for food and then spend the money on something else. These women had applied for assistance for food because they needed food, and they found it insulting to have someone remind them to feed their children rather than waste their money. Telling someone not to forget to feed their kids suggests that not feeding them is a possibility.

Sociologists tend to use the term discourse to refer to the way language is used by a group of people who share particular ideas. Discourse signifies language practices and statements that are held to be acceptable (even common-sense) giving order to our language and thought. Rather than being neutral, discourses work to shape our ideas and beliefs about the world. While approval of a Special Needs Grant supposedly denotes recognition of hardship, reminding people not to spend this money on alcohol and cigarettes draws on a discursive interpretation of beneficiaries that implies they do spend their money in this manner. Once the concept of the drinking, smoking, cheating beneficiary has been introduced, it is difficult to interpret an application for additional money in an alternative way.

There are a number of discourses that shape beliefs about lone mothers on welfare. Discourses of work propose that society is (and should be) made up of autonomous, self-supporting individuals. There is no sympathy for those who, for whatever reason, cannot be self-sufficient – only finger pointing and blame. Alongside this are welfare discourses constituting lone mothers on benefits as dishonest, bad mothers and immoral. Together these discourses shape the way that New Zealanders view women on sole parent support.

There is a Work and Income requirement that when a beneficiary has received more than two Special Needs Grants in a 12-month period, they are required to see a budgeting advisor. This is regardless of the circumstances that led to these applications. The implication is that those who encounter unexpected expenses are not managing their money well. The women I spoke to found this requirement absurd. They all spoke of the benefit as covering only basic costs, and pointed out that it was inadequate to cope with unforeseen bills. Having to attend budgeting courses, however, ignores this fact and shifts the blame away from the inadequacy of income, and back on to the women themselves. And as Jayne’s account below makes clear, the sad irony is that attending a budgeting course only emphasises the insufficiency of the benefit itself:

So I go and see this person at budgeting and it [the budget] says I OWE so much a week if I actually followed the budget if I actually worked with the budget. Like I [was told to ] allow that much for my warrant, that much for my rego, phone coming out, maybe a medical coming up, food, power. It doesn’t add up to how much you’re getting a week, like hair [cuts] and they even put gifts down on this budget. The budget advisor goes “it’s just bullshit but just sign here and then go back with it”.

While the supposition that lone mothers can manage on welfare payments alone is bullshit, it is supported by discourses condemning women who cannot.  If you cannot manage, you must be making poor decisions and wasting your money in some way. Many women reported feeling constrained by their inability to resist such discourses with stories of their own individual needs. Desiree told me about being faced with two large bills and having to choose between paying for her car to be repaired and paying her power bill. She chose to repair her car but when she approached Work and Income for a Special Needs Grant to help with the power bill, the case manager told her she had made the wrong decision – a decision detrimental to her children:

Then she [caseworker] said, “So you’d rather have your power cut off and everything and your babies go cold and starve?”

The implication is not that her limited income has exceeded her expenses, but that she is a bad mother.

Beneficiaries’ stories about their interactions with case managers emphasise the role language plays in the construction of identity. Reminding women not to waste their food grants, sending them to budgeting advice, and questioning their decisions, draws on a common-sense understanding of welfare mothers as lacking self-sufficiency, morality and parenting skills. The language utilised when processing Special Needs Grants – grants that by their very nature emphasise hardship – makes it difficult to see beneficiaries in any other way. As Margaret Wetherell has written when “accounts and discourses become available and widely shared, they become social realities to be reckoned with”. Dominant welfare discourses are pervasive and undoubtedly influence the way that Work and Income staff view their clients. The discursive practices used by case managers as they implement Work and Income processes, mean that policy supposedly designed to help is in fact being delivered through a language of blame and recrimination.

See also: Danaher, G., Schirato, T., & Webb, J. (2000). Understanding Foucault.  & Wetherell, M. (2001). Themes in discourse research: The case of Diana. Discourse theory and practice: A reader, 14-28.

2 Comments

  1. This behaviour has got nasty only in the past eight years, under Paula Bennett.

    On the DPB, with TIA to help me finish a degree I was only four papers short on, my WINZ case worker from 2001-2003 was exceptionally skilled & helpful.

    When I became disabled, & had to shift to Invalid’s Benefit as my medical costs rose & my ability to hold down any employment diminished (& I had worked a few casual & part-time contracts, none of which got me off the DPB, but all of which I had hoped might lead to full-time work…), my new case worker was ignorant of medical terminology, couldn’t process the paperwork presented as per demands, and was the subject of my first Ministerial complaint. That complaint was dealt with at Regional MSD level in Welllington, comprehensively, and with findings that validated the medical & allergy-related food & non-food costs that I was incurring. It took two and a half years from go to woah.

    Recently, the churn in staffing at WINZ has catapulted me into more formal complaints: staff are either incompetent or unwilling to acknowledge that the medical expenses et al have been comprehensively investigated and signed off in 2010.

    I am now in a complaint process involving the Ombudsman, against Waikato Regional MSD failing to process paperwork in a timely and reasonable manner.

    It shouldn’t require two degrees, one involving social & economic policy papers, in order for a beneficiary to get adequate service from frontline, managerial or even regional office staff, but that is what I have experienced – breaches of the Social Security Act 1964 & it’s amendments, bullying, ‘loss’ of documents, coercive language in replies containing denials that paperwork has been sent; overall, an atmosphere that posits there are no genuinely disabled or needy people, just fraudsters and bludgers.

    I’ve had enough, I’ll take this to Supreme Court if I have to.
    Those bigots who keep trying to treat beneficiaries as lesser human beings are going to be sacked. Starting with Minister Bennett!
    #changethegovernment

    • Good on you & good luck! So many people (quite understandably) don’t use the complaints process because of a lack of energy or confidence, fear of repercussions etc. Yet following it through is one way of having concerns formally recognised and potentially bringing about change.

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