In qualitative research we look to find broad patterns among a group of participants. In my research I have been looking for patterns in relation to lone mothers on welfare. I interviewed a variety of women from vastly different social contexts. I spoke to women identifying as Pakeha, Māori, one or more Pacific ethnicities, Indian, South American and Asian. These women had spent varying lengths of time on a benefit. One women had been on Sole Parent Support for one month, another had been receiving a benefit for the past 20 years. Some were in contact with their families, others had little support. Violence was a feature of a number of the women’s past relationships. Many of the women reported receiving treatment for their mental health. Some women were well educated, and others had left school as soon as they were able. The women understandably did not always share opinions on subjects and they did not always have the same concerns.
This post includes the stories of three women from Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland. Their lives and backgrounds are varied but they are connected by their experiences with the welfare system. My aim in this post is to emphasise the wide range in the circumstances of women who rely on welfare, but the patterned uniformity of their experiences with Work and Income New Zealand.
Caitlin is Māori, aged 21 and has been on and off the benefit since she left school at 16 and has no formal qualifications. She has lived in various places around New Zealand. Her relationship with her family is strained. She has an 8 month old child.
I was homeless when I was five months pregnant and they wouldn’t grant me the sickness benefit because I couldn’t work. I was working at Burger King and I was on the fryers, and my boss knew I was pregnant but she always put me on the fryers. I think she didn’t want me to work there anyway. Anyway, I fainted once at work and then I decided, “I’m not doing this. You either change me, put me somewhere else.” And she’s like, “Oh, I’m sorry love. You’ve just gotta stick it out on the fryers.” She was really inconsiderate. So I went to WINZ to put me on the sickness – it’s called something different now – and they stuffed me round for about two months. So I was moving from house to house …they just wouldn’t grant it to me. They just said that I didn’t need to be on it. So I had no money for about two months. They wouldn’t give me food grants … so I had to go and get about four support people to help me get just food.
Kirsten is Pakeha, aged 35. She has a tertiary qualification. She has been on the benefit since she left her husband eight months ago. She has the support of her family. Her child is two years old and she has returned to work part-time.
I went to [Work and Income] to find out what I was eligible for and what the stand down period was and how to apply and then I worked out all my timing and I had the conversation with the partner about the marriage was gonna end and then I went into WINZ and I brought all the documentation and they said “yeah, that’s great, you’re gonna get this much on this date” and I went “great”. Waited patiently, the ten days or whatever first payment date it didn’t come. I went in and said I was expecting a payment and they said “oh yeah there was a mistake, we’ll put it in tomorrow” and it was 10% of what I had been told it was going to be and this is when I sobbed so I went back and I was like “what am I gonna get and when am I gonna get it?” They made me feel like I was in the wrong and I didn’t know what was happening and for me the unknown was scary… I still had bills to pay and things and I didn’t know, I’d kicked him out.
Penny is Pakeha aged 32. She has no formal qualifications but wants to undertake study of some description in the future. She has been on the benefit for the past eight years. Violence was a feature of her most recent relationship. She has five children aged from four months to 10 years.
It’s like you have to hold your breath sometimes that you’re gonna get your grant…if you’re gonna get the essential stuff that you need. It’s just like you just get this anxiety building up in you and you’re like, “okay am I gonna get it?” Then if you ask for a food grant it’s like should I ask for $50 but really you need $100. … [At the office] you normally have to keep going up and asking, or I do, if I’ve been waiting almost an hour I’m like, “Am I gonna get seen yet?” I’ve had appointments around one and then I’ve had to wait an hour until two and then I’ve got kids at kindy and school and I’ve got to go soon and I’ve been waiting an hour or more, an hour and 45 I think is the longest I’ve waited one time to see someone. Then you only end up getting a little bit done what you need ‘cause you’ve got to go get the kids.
The treatment that these women have received is part of an overwhelming pattern at Work and Income and demands attention. It appears to matter little who you are, where you are from, or which office you visit. Caitlin couldn’t get assistance for food or housing when she was five months pregnant. Kirsten made a life-changing decision based on incorrect information received from a Work and Income caseworker. Penny talked about the anxiety of not having enough money to feed her five children and the ongoing demands on her time as she tried to get help. These are real women with real problems that are consistently being ignored by the people supposed to be helping them.