You had to be hiding under a rock in a different hemisphere if you did not hear that the general election in Aotearoa was launched and had just moved from first to fifth gear in less than minute when Metiria Turei spoke about life on welfare at the Green Party of Aotearoa AGM and conference on 16 July, 2017.
What followed was three days of air where the thousands of people affected by, supported by and traumatised by the welfare system began to tell of their experiences as children of mothers parenting alone or as mothers. Hashtags were trending, conversations were happening and then beneficiary bashing, racism and misogyny found a haven within media commentary and opinion writers. Out of that seething mass of hatred, shame and stigma rose the hashtag #WeAreBeneficiaries a campaign that continues to remind us of why we must speak out for those who cannot.
I was there when Metiria spoke, I knew what was coming and I cried. I know you are all aware of it because you have all wanted to talk about it. Some of you have made parallels with my life, others you own, or your mums, aunts and recently seperated friends. Others have acknowledged your privilege and then negated that by expressing relief that it’s not you, or wanted to play devils advocate, or pondered the lengths one might go to on a restricted income or told me how everything would be ok if single mums just apologised.
Arguing the cost of helping people is a short term suppression of long term human rights.
Most of you wanted to talk about the economics of poverty and how education and healthcare could help. You spoke about wanting all children to have equitable access to all resources that no child should go without or be deprived of a healthy, happy life. You expressed concern that if welfare was too easy people would take advantage of your good will, you expressed concern that welfare would somehow have a greater negative effect than poverty if we somehow made welfare more accessible.
The result of your concerned support for welfare policy is that it quickly became the thing that parties had but didn’t want to focus on. You see, your voices were the voices that got into the public sphere, your voices drowned out the voices of people actually living with poverty, working with poverty or wanting to share lived experience.
In the broadest terms every political leader and commentator had a view (if pushed) that poverty is bad for families, few could or would extend that out to include that poverty is bad for Aotearoa. Your privileged worry helped maintain a status quo that focussed on the cost of the cure. Cost benefit analysis yet again proved itself a subjective and ideological term that stymies innovation and upholds tired and oppressive systems of patriarchal colonialism. A simpler and more easily understandable conversation was the one Metiria started, that compassion and doing the humane thing reaps the best rewards in the long term.
Many beneficiaries are working people, often undertaking a kind of forced labour which is reframed as flexible work.
The connection between insecure precarious work with the struggles of beneficiaries was overlooked by many commentators. There are no guarantees of on going work and the hours are unpredictable because they are casualised. Casualised labour is not employment, it’s a form of flexibility that is the domain of those who can afford flexibility linked to the whims of an employer. There is no flexibility for people accessing welfare. Beneficiaries have no choice if they want the continued support of welfare. Precarious and casualised work means that beneficiaries are overpaid every other week.
It does not matter who forms the government, what matters and what we must respond to is the demand from communities that welfare is reformed to become a safety net and not a sentence. Given the outcomes of the general election and the potential coalition weightings, I think it is reasonable to say that no government alone will secure improvements for beneficiaries and low wage earners, this is going to take people and their communities. Real change takes organisation, voices and communities. Political discussion does not end on election night, nor does it end once a government is announced. Politics is ongoing engagement, agitation, education and organisation.
Your silence will not protect you – Audre Lorde.
Now, we the public, the privileged, those who have survived the welfare system and the resulting trauma, those who have no need of the system right now, must be the ones who step up and amplify the voices of beneficiaries. The one thing we have learned well since July is that welfare recipients are and will be punished for challenging decisions and by extension the system and being trespassed from the offices of Work and Income can mean both hunger and homelessness.
My friends, you are the Nurses, doctors, teachers, social workers, lawyers, youth workers and community based volunteers working with the impacts and trauma of poverty everyday. You have a responsibility to advocate for change in a visible way. Mutterings in the staff room maintain the status quo and agreeing to be silenced by threats to funding means you are failing those people whose lives you are paid to improve, your claims to feel good about the work you do are hollow without advocacy. We all have the capacity to be allies for social change by standing up for others.
Change those mutterings to conversations, talk to your peers and find allies who will keep the conversation going. Yes, help out with food collections and then look at how you can effect change with them. Grab a friend or some workmates and take those hampers down to your local work and income office, stand outside and hand them out. Accept that circumstance has driven people to come here for help and simply offer that help.
Become a advocate, attend some training and volunteer your time to support people at Work and Income. It makes a difference, if you have never had to access support like this, the experience will change your life. Share information online, take responsibility for the conversations you have with others, agitate for social change and compassion. Remind people that while charity is helpful in the short term, long term solutions are needed.
Finally, stop being so discreet, stop worrying about appearances, show your anger at the injustice, show the people who need your voice that you are an ally, join with others to agitate, rally, protest and protect. Imagine if you and your social networks boldly organised a rally outside Work and Income offices across Aotearoa and demanded welfare reform that is compassionate, that lifts the income of the lowest paid people and creates a future where dignity and respect are the cornerstone of healthy lives.
Your admiration and respect for people who have been leaders of change around the world is well placed, for without those troublemakers great things would not have happened. Whether your favourite troublemaker is Dame Whina, Kate Sheppard or Nelson Mandela, now is your time step forward and claim your title #Troublemaker.