On the surface it’s the sort of announcement that has the potential to warm the hearts of those amongst us who think there are significant numbers of lazy, drug and alcohol-addicted beneficiaries living within New Zealand communities who are collecting the benefit and enjoying life while we, the ordinary people, continue to pay tax on every dollar we earn.
Is it true that there are some receiving a benefit from the government who have no aspirations for themselves or their children other than to get by? Absolutely. But, and it’s a big but, in my experience there are a lot fewer beneficiaries who fit in this category than we are led to believe by media releases such as this one.
What do I know as a result of my work both within the Department of Corrections and within New Zealand communities?
I know that every woman (and I mean every woman) wants better for her children than that which she has known. She may not know how to deliver it. She may have an enormous hill to climb in terms of recovery from the trauma, abuse and neglect she herself suffered as a child, but deep in her heart she yearns to be able to keep her children safe, to protect them from the dangers of the world she knows only too well and to see them achieve the dreams they were carrying when they emerged from her womb.
Over recent weeks as part of the process of settling into a new home, I have been sorting boxes of files, information collected over the years since leaving Corrections and records from my subsequent work within various New Zealand communities.
As I have perused some of the papers and magazines I had kept, particularly from around the time I was writing my first book, The Journey to Prison: Who Goes and Why, published in August 2002, I was reminded that at that time we were deeply concerned as a country about our rates of child abuse, including the number of children suffering a violent death at the hands of someone they should have been able to trust.
As I write this, a report has just been released by the Glenn Inquiry that outlines the economic cost of family violence and child abuse in New Zealand. As I listened to the interview that RNZ National’s Kathryn Ryan did with Suzanne Snively, the report’s author, following the release of the report, I was immediately struck by the similarity between the concern being expressed by Suzanne that a country like ours should have such a high rate of family violence and child abuse and the discussions that were held in the early 2000s. The outrage back then came after the deaths of, among others, James Whakaruru, Hinewaoriki (Lillybing) Karaitiana-Matiaha, and Tangaroa Matiu.
The question has to be asked; how is it that 14 years after we saw the face of a gorgeous four-year-old boy, (James Whakaruru), published in the North & South magazine in February 2000, alongside the photos of his battered and bruised body taken after his death (only the soles of his feet left un-bruised by his attacker), we seem no closer to finding the answer to the challenges we face in this regard.
For me the answer is simple, amazingly simple. We have failed to realise that it is only through working with women, working with them as opposed to telling them what to do, that we have any hope of changing the destiny of the children we are seeking to protect.
I speak often of the woman I was privileged to be able to sit with a few years ago and hear her story. She told me as our discussion started that she had 21 agencies involved in her life at that time, some government agencies and some NGOs. I was fascinated by her ability to name them all, ticking them off on her fingers as she did so.
When after talking for around 45 minutes, she finished her account of her life as she saw it, I thanked her for her honesty and asked why she was willing to talk so candidly to me when she already had any number of women like me, well-meaning educated white middle-class women, meddling in her life. She smiled and said it was easy to talk when someone listened. ‘You mean they don’t listen?’ ‘Hell no’ she replied, ‘they come to tell you what to do’.
And so to the Government’s focus on getting people, sole parents in particular, off the benefit and into paid work.
When Anne Tolley speaks of investing in intensive support and training with a view to assisting young mothers into rewarding work, she paints a picture that is easy to warm to. Everyone deserves a chance at meaningful work. Everyone deserves a chance to educate themselves and follow their dreams. If only it were so easy.
The reality as I see it is very different. The vast majority of those going off the benefit and into work will enter low-paid jobs that fit in the category of casual rather than permanent work. Some I have spoken to are better off by around $20 a week after starting in work and before taking into account childcare and transport costs.
For many women, if they are to get ahead, they will have to hold down two, maybe even three, jobs that they will juggle along with looking after their children. Slowly and surely as the relentlessness of their life grinds on, they will wear out, become ill and start to struggle in a very real way with day-to-day living.
At the very time when their children crest into adolescence, their focus needs to be on managing the turbulence that comes with that stage of development. However they will no longer have the energy to be as involved as they should be in their children’s lives. Dealing daily with this reality and carrying the heavy load so many of them do from their own childhoods, they will find themselves overwhelmed and simply unable to manage.
Many of the women I have contact with are receiving the benefit and they are therefore the ‘target’ of government policies that require them to be in paid work. These women carry enormous personal histories that if not addressed, will inevitably affect the way they raise their children.
It is very easy to see the repeat history within many families; – children born to children; abuse and violence the only known way of living; addiction the inevitable way of coping; women old before their time, their children then parents long before they should be. And so the cycle continues.
I am not suggesting women should be excused from working and/or be allowed to languish on the benefit. If I believed the government policies were based on a true desire to assist women to empower themselves and live lives that are an example to their children, I would feel a lot more comfortable with those policies.
Sadly it isn’t about empowering women; - it’s about political gain; it’s about appealing to those who want simple solutions to what is an extremely complicated situation.
One woman I know is raising her two daughters as a sole parent, both girls currently attending primary school. She has had a turbulent past that has included violence and abuse. After some difficult years she has stabilised her life and that of her daughters and is doing very well.
This single mother is actively involved with the school her daughters attend and is a self-motivated and engaged parent. She grows vegetables in her garden, sells strawberries at her gate and spends a lot of time and energy thinking about ways in which she can support her daughters to be all they can be. The special needs of her daughters are such that life isn’t particularly easy, but she is coping well.
She recently came under a great deal of pressure from Work and Income to find paid work. She was more than willing to do so and was very pro-active in looking for work in her local community. Her stated boundaries when looking for work was that it would have to be within school hours as it was important to her to be able to be with her daughters after school. She was told by Work and Income that she needn’t worry, they would pay the costs of any after-school care that was required.
My question is: - If they are willing to pay for after-school care, why don’t they pay her, the girls’ mother? My concern knowing the situation in some detail is that if this woman is forced into full-time work, in time she will tire. She will no longer have the time or the energy to grow vegetables. She will begin to feed her daughters fast food on more occasions than is currently the case and slowly and surely the fabric of the household, already a delicate balance, will begin to fray.
At the very time when she will need to be super-vigilant as her daughters enter puberty - if she is to ensure they don’t go down the same path she did - she will not be able to pay as much attention as she should due to other demands, including those of her employer.
This is a woman with a significant personal history doing her best to raise her two daughters with little support. She holds the destiny of these two girls in the palm of her hand.
Where is this reality recognised or even acknowledged in a policy that celebrates another person being denied the support of the government in the difficult task of stopping the cycle of abuse, neglect and violence that she experienced and is so determined to free her daughters from?
This is not an isolated example. Many of the 10,000 people no longer receiving a benefit whose change in circumstances is seen by the Minister as a major achievement will be in similar situations;- women who have the potential to be the ones to change the future of their children for the better. They will never have that opportunity because as a society we lack the foresight and the courage to take a more long-term view. Rather than it being the case that ‘the headway we are making now will pay off for generations’, I suspect a more accurate statement might be:
'The decisions we are making now will haunt us for generations to come’.