Confession of a guilty man

Guest post from Patupairehe:


Recent events in the media have been bothering me. A few of our so called representatives have been somewhat economical with the truth, in their past dealings with what is now known as the MSD. Some have also been less than upfront with the public, but lets not go there. That is not why I’m writing this. I am writing because I have a confession to make. In the distant past, I too, have failed to meet my ‘obligations’ to the ministry. Not that I feel guilty about it, I just think that if Metiria can ‘fess up, and explain why she did it, then so should I. As she opined in a recent article on the Stuff website, “”…it’s worth me taking the hit if it means New Zealanders understand how appalling our welfare system has become and how easy it is to fix it.” So here is my story…

My now wife & I had children young, and it was often a struggle to make ends meet on an apprentice’s wage in the late 90’s. A family friend suggested we apply for the accommodation supplement, so my then partner phoned WINZ to find out how. She was informed we would be mailed some forms to fill in, and that we would need to bring these to a meeting with a case manager, along with our birth certificates, some of my payslips, and a joint bank account statement (which was to prove that we were in a de-facto relationship).

I remember thinking at the time how silly it was, that they wanted her to prove we were entitled to less money than she would have been, had we not been honest about our relationship. I had to take time off work to set up the joint bank account, and also to attend the meeting with our case manager. At the conclusion of the meeting, the case manager informed us that we were entitled to around $20 each per week, then asked if we both wanted our payments to be made into the joint account. She didn’t seem to understand why I found that question funny.I was also told that I must inform WINZ of any changes to my income, by ringing the call center on payday.

The first time I rang the call center was on a Thursday around 2 weeks later, as I was paid fortnightly. We had already received our first 2 benefit payments, and the lady on the phone informed me that due to me  working overtime, we had been overpaid, but not to worry about it because it would be deducted in installments from future ‘entitlements’. A few days later, we both received letters stating we had been overpaid, that this ‘debt’ must be repaid, that it would be deducted at $X/week, and that our new weekly entitlement was $X/week before repayment deductions.

A fortnight later, I rang the call centre again, and after waiting on hold for around 20 minutes, a different woman answered. As I had worked less hours than last time, she was happy to inform me that both my partner & I had been underpaid, and that we would both be paid the difference (which was <$10) within two working days. I told her to just credit it against what we ‘owed’, but apparently she couldn’t do that. A few days later, we both received a letter, which informed us that an underpayment had been credited to our bank account.

This silliness went on for just over a year, during which my partner & I accumulated just under 30 letters each. Then one Wednesday, our benefit payments didn’t appear in our account. When I rang to report my pay that Thursday, I asked why, and was told that it was because my partner had failed to return a form they had sent her. When I asked her about it, she dug around in our filing cabinet and found it. She had thrown it in there without even opening it, because “They send us stupid bloody letters all the time!”.
The form was around 15 pages long, and asked all manner of irrelevant questions, such as “Are you descended from a NZ Maori?”. To this day I fail to understand what that had to do with my income, or how much rent we paid. But we filled it out honestly anyway, and our benefit was re-instated the following week.

I kept ringing up every payday for several months, and waited on hold for around half an hour on average. The computer generated letters kept arriving, and our average payment amount slowly decreased, as my pay increased. Our payments were down to around $10 each/week when I stopped ringing them. It just didn’t seem worth waiting half an hour on the phone once a fortnight for, and we figured that we’d just wait for them to stop paying us, when we ignored the next written interrogation from them. I had also been informed by a friend, whose sister was a WINZ case manager, that they wouldn’t bother attempting to recover ‘debts’ of under $2000.

Sure enough, my then partner eventually received a form ,and ignored it. A few weeks later, we both had our benefits cut, and she got a dirty letter from WINZ, which stated that we would not get any more money until she filled in the form. She ignored that one too. And that was the last we heard about it.

I’m not sure if things are still the same nowadays. I wouldn’t know, having not claimed a benefit for quite some time. What I do know, is that a significant percentage of the welfare budget is spent on administration, and I can understand why, if my experience is anything to go by.