Opinion: When I first set up my lobbying firm, Awhi, I had no secret donor, silent partner or overseas brand catapulting me into a six-figure salary in the hopes of turning a quick profit. I had zero revenue, week in, week out, for as far as the eye could see.
Much thanks must be given to my parents – as well as TradeMe – who allowed me to take the ultimate risk in creating a business that allows me to be independent in every sense of the word, and craft the kind of life I now live. My parents put a roof over my head (once again at 27), while the latter enabled me to turn all sorts of luxurious trimmings I afforded in my former life into cash to get by.
Early into month three of building my pakihi, my pāpā told me to apply for the benefit. “It’s not really there for the likes of me, Pāpā,” I responded. “Why not?” he replied, “you’ve paid tax since you were 14, the state can help you out now.”
He had a point. I got my first job at 14 as a waitress at my local cafe. My whole pay cheque for a full day on my feet was $49, and after my first day I told my māmā I didn’t want to go back. If I was not going to go back, Māmā explained, I had a duty to my employer to have the grown-up conversation. She also stressed that working would mean I had my own money, which meant I had options. Needless to say, I kept that job for years.
Yet, in 2018 when I rang Work and Income to enquire about getting the benefit, I felt awkward. The thought that “it’s not really for me” was on max volume reverberating around my brain. A few conversations, a couple of forms, and one visit to the local office later, and I was receiving the job seeker benefit for the first time in my life. However, the stigma attached to being on the benefit – a state-funded safety net – was so deeply ingrained in my psyche that I set myself a goal to get off it as quickly as I could. Seven weeks was all I needed.
This is not an anecdote of a beneficiary to business owner – that is hardly my story. Nor do I share this to romanticise the experience of someone on a benefit; I had opportunities available to me that made it that much easier to survive. Instead, I share this in an effort to highlight the obsession we have in perpetuating shame around receiving the benefit.
Access to a benefit is part of the social contract we have in modern society. That is, we understand that a portion of our taxes will be used to create a support system for those in need, and that support serves the greater good of ensuring the sustainability of our society, and all those within it. Yet, the safety net is too often used as a tool for dominance.
Just $337.74 per week is an abysmal amount of money to live on and their lives must be extremely hard. So when we apply a sanction to this pittance, what are we implying about their worth?
During my visit to the local Work and Income office I saw a tāne approach one of the kaimahi for assistance in filling out his forms. Line by line he asked what it said and what he should put. As the staff member became exasperated by the questions it occurred to me: this tāne had been failed by our education system. His mounting requests were likely because he couldn’t read or write, and he was too ashamed to say it.
Shame is the belief that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of belonging. Studies show that when people feel ashamed they believe their entire self is worthless and powerless, and when exposed to an audience – real or imagined – the purpose of that exposure confirms their worthlessness.
Benefit sanctions like those announced by National, and limiting benefit entitlement as announced by NZ First, do nothing more than supercharge the shame. Wouldn’t we be better off supercharging the shame that comes with indefensible, exploitative or illegal business practices?
Shouldn’t the attention be on the company directors who have a nasty habit of phoenixing and leaving a trail of devastated customers in their wake?
Shouldn’t the attention be on the businesses awarded state-funded contracts to help underserved communities, despite being publicly reprimanded by countless members of said underserved communities for questionable dealings?
Shouldn’t the attention be on those involved in organised crime who are happy to avoid paying any form of income or company tax, and yet amass an eye-watering portfolio of assets including property, motorcycles and classic cars from illegal activity?
The collective harm from this kind of behaviour is immense, yet I see very little emphasis placed on them by politicians. I believe we should put a magnifying glass – and a mountain of money – onto these kinds of dealings, rather than sanctioning someone who might turn up to an interview in pyjamas. After all, the relative harm to society is incomparable.