I have been wanting to write about welfare benefits for some time because there has been a lot of debate going on recently about changes to the unemployment benefit and domestic purposes benefit. It’s an issue that also comes around every election season and really hits a nerve with some people. And in particular, it’s an issue that hits close to home.
We all know the stereotype of the lazy middle-aged man on his arse living off the dole when he could be working (he just can’t be bothered) and of course the media loves to drink all of this up. Tax payer dollars fueling slothy lifestyles. Arguably if the government is so concerned about its budget perhaps the better place to catch up on money would be tax dodgers who deprive the public of millions of dollars each as opposed to a few extra dollars for the dole but I think the important thing is that we forget about the purpose of having a welfare state in the first place.
I used to be ashamed of the fact that I essentially grew up on the benefit. For various medical reasons, my mother has not been able to work for the past 7 years so the bulk of our household income, as a single parent family with two children, has been through the aggregation of a number of benefits - the main one being the domestic purposes benefit.
As a consequence of benefits being designed to be insufficient in the long-run, my family has a horrible looking debt balance. Our income versus expenditure has never added up. All of my little school trips - those $5 entrance fees to the zoo - up until I was old enough to start working were basically paid from overdrafts. I won’t even start on mortgages and credit cards.
It also means that I have consistently held a part time job (or, in some cases, three jobs) since I was thirteen. I started to pay very basic things like my own school fees since year 11 of high school and most of my belongings, which include my piano and desktop computer, were things that I saved up for and purchased for myself.
No one can tell of course, because one of the benefits of having started working so early is that I’ve had a lot of experience under my belt to successfully climb up the wage ladder. And it’s not really something to complain about (in fact, I’m quite proud of my financial independence) because you see many other families hitting it so much worse.
I know there are so many people who do abuse the welfare system and claim things they shouldn’t claim, but one of the main purposes of having a welfare state in the first place is to enable equality of opportunity.
If my family lived in a society where lack of money became a barrier to an education and an adequate standard of living, I wouldn’t even be close to where I am now. What our family has gained from the welfare benefits is tiny compared to my future earning potential, and I know I will give back to the country because I’m so incredibly grateful to have had that safety net in my early life. Some could say that the benefit is an investment on New Zealand’s future. Our current Prime Minister John Key also grew up on the DPB. The list goes on. Having some source of income (albeit a small amount) when your family really needs it enables you, the children of these families, to achieve things and take opportunities you otherwise wouldn’t be able to take.
People look at debt and people on the benefit and they shrivel their noses. People will tell my mother to go get a job, to set a better example for her children, to be able to provide basic things like food, clothing and pay for our school donations every year.
Perhaps children do have a ‘right’ to these things, but many people take these simple things for granted.
I don’t think life has been unfair, but rather it’s taught me how to be resourceful and do things for myself. I can tough out worse things that come my way, and independence is satisfying to have earnt.
Without the welfare state, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of these things I did in my teenage years. I wouldn’t be looking forward to working for a law firm over the summer but instead bent on my back slaving away 9-5pm at some checkout counter at my local Pak’n’save for the good part of my youth.
While I agree that perhaps tighter measures need to be put in place to control where the money goes, I hope that people do remember to consider the other side when making such important decisions about other people’s livelihoods and futures.
When considering people, listen to their stories and not just the figures.