It’s time to stop labelling people who are entitled to WINZ benefits, pensions and allowances as beneficiaries.
The term beneficiary indicates a person or group that receives a benefit as in either a profit or advantages from a benefactor, insurance policy or inheritance. In other words, it infers a windfall that is not the product of my own labour and that I will benefit from whatever I receive. I have yet to meet anyone accessing entitlements from WINZ that has benefited from that arduous interaction and the subsistence to which WINZ condemns them.
The effect of labelling people as beneficiaries contributes to the construction of a social identity that supports a story of freeloading and profiteering and in turn upholds the neo liberal rhetoric which describes people accessing support as lazy bludgers who are somehow advantaged. This rhetoric also disregards the working poor who are reliant on allowances and supplements in order to maintain their own subsistence in Aotearoa.
Separating beneficiaries from low income earners sets up a relationship tension that pits low income earners against beneficiaries and deflects away from the shared experience of income inequality. This means that dominant power relationships are sustained as class constructs that define the deserving poor and the poor. I define low income as any person earning less than a full living wage because regardless of where that income comes from, subsistence and the inability to fully participate in society is the shared reality of low income people.
Bonnie Robinson wrote a paper for the Foodbanks conference of 1996 titled “Some Attitudes about Poverty in NZ.” The paper identified four attitudes towards poverty and each of those attitudes still exists and is expressed and perpetuated in political discourse and media commentary, both dominant influencers of attitudes. I recommend the article as a poignant reminder of how little progress has been made in the twenty years since that paper was written.
Robinson wrote of the plight of low income people and described the day to day live reality as “For such people, poverty is not a character-building activity. It is a daily and constant reality that wears their financial, physical and emotional resources to zero.”
I’m musing on this subject as a beneficiary advocate who worries that the very language we use to advocate on behalf of beneficiaries could further stigmatise and perpetuate attitudes and constructs about poverty and how that connects to low incomes. Beneficiary is an inaccurate label, these are people that subsist on low incomes and there are no benefits to living this way.