The plight of the beneficiary

Alicia Sudden

To be a beneficiary in New Zealand is to be innately separate from the rest of the population. It comes with connotations about who you are as a person, your motivations, your worth. This is the result of decades of homogenising and dehumanising discourses. And these have very real impacts on the rights and wellbeing of people in New Zealand.


One example is the benefit dependency discourse. This is a collection of ideas and communications that builds strongly on the individualism rhetoric of neoliberalism, blaming the unemployed for their circumstances, and assumes being on the benefit is due to choice and laziness. In doing so, this discourse positions the welfare state as an ample pathway for beneficiaries to pursue their poor life choices. Only last year Social Development Minister Anne Tolley defended the use of harsh sanctions on benefit payments because “this is not a lifestyle”. The beneficiary dependency discourse acts to dehumanise and homogenise those on the benefit, and obscures the reasons people do rely on welfare.


Beyond the frustration of the misconceptions in the public around who beneficiaries are, the benefit dependency discourse has harmful effects. I surveyed 234 former and current beneficiaries during my research and 43% of those currently on a benefit felt dissatisfied with their lives. 58% of participants who were now off the benefit recall feeling unhappy when they had been on a benefit; social stigma and isolation were common feelings. Michael*, a current beneficiary who I spoke with during my research, said “These days I keep to myself because as a welfare recipient we are often labelled as being lazy bludgers”.


The politically and ideologically-loaded concept of benefit dependency is increasingly informing the policies of the welfare system in New Zealand. The perception that beneficiaries are undeserving dependents in society provides fertile territory for the implementation of punitive welfare policies, benefit levels that create poverty and hardship and a culture of shame and stigma. Built into policy changes such as the cutting of benefit levels in 1991, sanctioning, and hardened work obligations is the assumption that the only way to get people off the benefit is through hardship and force.


But why do these assumptions about beneficiaries continue to dominate the public sphere? The very purpose of the welfare state is to uphold the wellbeing of all in society – no matter the circumstances of the individual. Former Prime Minister and Labour Party leader, the Honourable Michael Joseph Savage, implemented what was at the time the world’s first comprehensive welfare state in New Zealand. In the preamble of the Social Security Act 1938 he outlined the necessity and responsibility of the state to uphold the wellbeing of those who were negatively affected by “age, illness, unemployment, widowhood, or other misfortunes”.


During my interviews, Rebecca* stressed the importance of welfare for when life takes unexpected turns, which can happen to everyone:


“And so I realised being home and being on the benefit or being really poor and not having support really for all of us are potentially only a few steps away if you happen to get into the wrong courses in life… I worked very hard through my life not to ever be in a difficult position, but it still happened.… You think you are really safe and stable, but things change, and then they all mount up and all of a sudden you are in this really vulnerable place.”


However, now people who find themselves affected by such ‘misfortunes’ as to require a benefit are subject to a system that no longer prioritises their wellbeing, and instead socially and economically excludes them from society. In a time of unprecedented inequality and child poverty in New Zealand, the welfare system is increasingly withdrawing support and being punitive towards those in need.


One strong theme of the benefit dependency discourse is the failure of beneficiaries to retain their independence, no matter the wider economic context. However, all citizens rely on the state in some way, whether it is for access to water, roadways or other taken for granted parts of modern life. Therefore, in a moral sense there is nothing wrong with being reliant on the state. And certainly current policy makers are aware of the value of state support. Another current beneficiary who I spoke to, Nicole*, pointed out the irony of the welfare cuts that have taken place under this current government:


“It is really hard to sit back and see our government unfortunately not actually be there for Kiwi families.… There are some things I actually do agree with John Key, but the majority I think – where… have you come from? His mother was a sole parent, and he talks about how he had turned out fine.… How his mother survived was being on the benefit and having all the rights in the world. The same as Paula Bennett. And now they are cutting all those things off from us.”


The current efforts to reduce fiscal costs are driven by the narrative that huge amounts of hard-working individuals’ taxes are going toward supporting these presumed lazy individuals on the benefit. Yet according to the 2016 Budget (Vote Social Development) over half of all ‘benefits or related expenses’ of 2015/2016 will be spent on superannuation payments. But this is never questioned, nor is the qualities or deservedness of those over the age of 65 who receive New Zealand Superannuation. Indeed, superannuation is universally available whereas other benefits are means-tested.


According to Humpage (2015) the rise of neoliberalism in New Zealand since 1984 has had a significant impact on public perceptions, including towards beneficiaries. Beneficiaries are seen to be problematic in society arguably because they do not fit the mould of an ideal neoliberal citizen. No matter the wider economic fluctuations or changes in personal circumstances, the ideal neoliberal citizen remains independent and in paid employment. To not be working, or not working enough, is therefore to disrupt the parameters of what is considered acceptable, during a time when the value of individuals is equated with their economic worth.


Caregivers and parents also find themselves outside the category of worthy citizens. This is certainly visible in the work restrictions applied to sole parents, who must be work ready when their youngest is three years old, or if they have additional child while on the benefit, they must attempt to find work from when that child is only one year old. The value of unpaid labour such as parenting goes unacknowledged.


This pressure to conform to the ideal neoliberal citizen is visible throughout not only the ideology, but also the procedures of the welfare system. Beneficiaries are subjected to drug tests (despite less than .05% testing positive), sanctions and surveillance to prevent any behaviour that is considered deviant. This restriction in freedoms is deemed acceptable due to the inherent difference assumed of benefit recipients compared to the wider population.


The benefit dependency discourse informs not only our perceptions, but the policies and treatment of beneficiaries. The poverty and hardships that exists for beneficiaries can therefore not be understood without first acknowledging how it has come to be so widely accepted. Breaking down the assumption that beneficiaries are inherently different from the rest of the population is a pre-requisite for working toward a welfare system that upholds the wellbeing of all, as Michael Joseph Savage intended.


*names changed

Alicia’s thesis, Putting wellbeing back into welfare: Exploring social development in Aotearoa New Zealand from beneficiaries’ perspectives will be available through the Victoria University of Wellington library in a few months.

Alicia Sudden
About the author

Alicia Sudden

Alicia Sudden has recently completed a Masters in Development Studies which included a thesis that analysed the current social development landscape in New Zealand. Her research was strongly focused on ground-up data gathering, drawing on experiences, outcomes and insights from former and current beneficiaries. Her research interests are around public perceptions of poverty and the benefit in New Zealand, the welfare system, and the impact wider economic and policy changes have on individuals and families. She is currently working in the political sphere, and is keen to be a part of working towards better social security in New Zealand.