Survival Guide For Dealing With DWI
A Contribution To A Survival Guide For Dealing With The Department Of Work & Income
A Report on a research exercise undertaken in partial fulfilment of the requirement for the fourth year Bachelor of Social Work degree, Massey University.
Margaret Wood 2001
I am a mature, fourth year Massey University Student currently finishing my last paper(the practical component) of a Bachelor of Social Work degree at the Community Services Council.
I am divorced, have a fourteen year old son called Joel. I own (with a mortgage) my home in Napier, where I began my degree. This is my story on the continual battle I have endured, to receive what I am entitled to in the form of an accommodation supplement from the department of Work and Income, Palmerston North. It has been extreme, two Benefit Reviews and a Social Security Appeal Authority hearing.
I am writing this article first and fore-most with the desire that it will inspire others ( in particular mature students) who may be caught in my situation, to fight the department and win. My long term goal is that the more people who are willing to take on the system for what is rightfully theirs, the more chance there is of a policy change.
I will back up my story with reference to policies in relation to the accommodation supplement and a student who had moved to attend a tertiary institution and has a non-cash asset. I will include what I have learnt about beneficiary entitlements and how to go about receiving them. The department of Work and Income do not inform you of these things.
I will tell my story then outline the policy issues as I see them and draw conclusions. I will outline the way the department operates and why it does. In conclusion I will list a number of specific measures that can be taken to improve the situation for claimants.
When I began the Bachelor of Social Work degree, I was unaware I would need to transfer to Massey University full-time in order to complete it .This left me in a position of having to rent my property out to cover the expenses on the house while I attended Massey full-time in Palmerston North.
Prior to becoming a student, I was employed as a knife hand at the freezing works, earning between $300 to $600.00 a week depending on the time of the year. On becoming a student, surviving on approximately $300.00 a week before a mortgage of $180.00 was deducted was tough. I was not used to living like this, struggling financially and having to learn the skills needed on the way to become a social worker.
As stated above, I was on a reasonable income between $300.00- $600.00 a week depending on the time of year, this was reflected in my lifestyle; what I ate, where I lived, the type of car and clothes my son and I wore, and the ability to go out and enjoy ourselves on the weekend. I could afford to participate in society. I did not take this into account before beginning my degree. A huge adjustment period took place. The things I had taken for granted were gone. I was in a situation where there was not enough money to adequately feed my son, illustrated in the eft-pos card being declined at the supermarket check out, the only option, to walk out hastily, leaving the much needed groceries behind. A harsh reality, particularly when I had been offered my job back on numerous occasions, along with the inability at the beginning stages, to have an assurance I would complete the course and reap the rewards in the form of a degree.
At the time of starting the course I felt poor. On reflection, it was just the beginning. I could not have imagined what was about to unfold after leaving my own home in Napier to complete the degree in Palmerston North. Work and Income Napier certainly did not inform me of the problems which would be incurred as a direct result of owning my own home.
On arriving in Palmerston North, I ensured my son was settled in school, the house was unpacked and I had some relational bearings on the immediate inner city. I went to inform Work and Income, that I was here.
I was inadequately prepared for the welcome I would receive, as their brochures had lead me to believe. "Your case manager will be your main contact at Work and Income New Zealand. They'll make sure you get all you're entitled to and the right support to prepare you for work"(Work and Income Brochure, p2)
I was here to complete my course. Is that not living up to the obligation of preparing for work? Yet I received the opposite to a welcome." What was I doing in Palmerston North ? Why had I not been in earlier to see them?" Reading between the lines, it appears that beneficiaries move around the country-side at whim. I was then passed on to who would later become case manager number one, who informed me, in not so many words, "you shouldn't be here." " I'd go back to Hawkes Bay if I was you." I shook her hand and said, "thank you very much " and walked out in tears. As a result my accommodation supplement was stopped, as they considered my assets were over the limit allowed.
Along with this, I was advised to get a bank loan. I did what Work and Income had advised me, I went to the bank to see about a loan. The bank on the other hand, stated I did not have enough income and an adverse credit rating so was not entitled to a bank loan. This left me in an awkward position, Work and Income were stating I had too much money, I was not entitled to an Accommodation Supplement. It was frustrating. In the eyes of Work and Income I was comfortable, yet according to the bank I was a credit risk. In speaking to someone from an Advocacy Service, later, I learnt that the department telling beneficiaries to go for a bank loan was standard procedure a few years ago. I wonder if the reason it stopped, was that banks got frustrated and annoyed at beneficiaries queuing up for $20.00 or $30.00 to get their second hand fridge or washing machines breaking down, and had a word in the departments ear?
I had rented my house to cover the mortgage and insurance and rates etc when I moved to Palmerston North and I could not believe the problem this was creating. Over the period I have been in Palmerston North, I have had nothing but problems with the department deciding whether or not I am entitled to an accommodation supplement. Case managers have their own interpretation of the law with regards to my right to an accommodation supplement. I did not know whether I would have a supplement or not.
This began in 1998. The first semester of my degree at Massey University. My accommodation supplement was stopped leaving my then 11 year old son and I in a deficit situation; $220.00 a week to live on. In about May that year my case manager rang me when I was least expecting it and said, "I have been thinking about your situation. I have found a clause that fits your circumstances." I believe this was due to my attitude. I was angry yet I chose not to take it out on my case manager, yet, it would have shown in my body language. Perhaps this made her think about my situation. There were two clauses within Work and Incomes policies provided room for someone who owned their own home and had needed to move to complete a degree at University. Consequently my accommodation supplement was restarted.
Shifting location I believe, showed my commitment to completing the degree. It cost money, and uprooted my son and I from our home. I had just paid a huge amount on furniture removal, bond, power and phone connection and having to restock in food. There were other costs to take into account, not in monetary terms alone, but in what I had left behind: friendships, my family, my home and my job.
The department had different ideas.
I was naive at the time to the way Work and Income operates, due in part to the department not informing me of my entitlements. I have discovered that this is common practice.
I was allocated a new case manager. Once again I received a letter stating my accommodation supplement had been stopped as from 01/11/99 because "your assets being over the limit allowed." This cut forced my then 12 year old boy Joel and I to live on $220.00 a week .Out of that came $120.00 in rent, leaving power and phone and food and to clothe my son and I.
I decided to appeal the decision and it was the 27 of January 2000 when the case went to the Benefit Review Committee (BRC), I won the case. This resulted in my accommodation supplement being reinstated. This however was not the end of it.
After having gone to a (BRC) I thought that would have been the end of it. This was not the case, on the first of January 2001 with a different case manager, my accommodation supplement was stopped again because my assets being over the limit allowed. Why was there complete and utter confusion of stop and starting of my accommodation supplement. This time it was not as easy to sort out.
The confusion began after having moved to Palmerston North in order to attend Massey University. The confusion was over whether to class my property in Napier as a cash or non cash asset.
The year 2001, I returned to a (BRC) where I lost. This was not because of the way the case was presented, because in the report from the (BRC) it stated I presented a well researched case, but the case manager that was representing the department presented a better case. An important point was the case manager stating I could go to the bank and get a bank loan. I once again approached the bank to see if I would be eligible for a bank loan, they turned me down, stating I had an adverse credit rating and therefore was not eligible for it. On review, the (BRC) said I wasn't eligible but the offer of an accommodation supplement at a reduced rate was still open(that is, you're not eligible, but you are eligible!!!). I decided to appeal this decision to the Social Security Appeal Authority.(SSAA)
On preparing for the (SSAA)the Massey University Students' Association Advocate and I wrote away to the department asking for a copy of my case file. On receiving this we found in amongst my file a letter that did not pertain to me in any way. The letter was addressed to someone else with regards to some tutoring that had been done. The department were stating that I had extra income as well, that I had been tutoring. I had not been. I went and got a letter from Massey stating this fact. This was once again an error on the part of the department.
In appealing the decision a letter is written stating that you disagree with the decision made by the(BRC). This must be sent within three months after the(BRC's) ruling has been made. For the (SSAA) a document called a 12K report is presented in court stating the case and what will be presented in court. From the 12K report those in charge of looking at appeals make a decision as to whether there is a strong enough case to present. It was accepted.
It was seven and a half months from the time my benefit had been stopped before my Appeal Authority hearing took place. It was a long time to be living on $220.00 a week. The debts were piling up. The only way I survived the time was with my family paying for my power and phone each month.
In the lead up to the (SSAA) it was an extremely busy time, so I chose to delay the last segment of my degree, a placement where you work in the community at a social work job to learn more about the practical application of what you have learnt. The reason I delayed it was so I could be available to work with the Students' Association Advocacy Service on my case. I knew there would be a lot of last minute things to organise and prepare and I did not want to be taking time off work to do it. There were things like documents from the bank proving mortgage payments, sorting out documents on work, medical certificates to prove why I had left my job at the freezing works. Generally ensuring we had all the information needed.
In putting together the 12K report we had to ensure that we had covered everything that needed to be put in the report.
? What I did prior to being a student ? What my goals were after doing my degree ? How the department had been paying me Training Incentive Allowance (TIA) and about deferring my work testing obligations. ? A bit about my family background with regards to my home and why I chose to keep hold of it ? The two BRC's I had been to ? Why I felt I was entitled to an accommodation supplement
With this report they decide whether there is enough reason for it to be heard by the Appeal Authority. They felt I had enough evidence. The court then writes up a report based on the information received along with what the law states on the issue. This is what is presented in court. This is also is sent out with the decision of the Appeal Authority.
On presenting my case in Wellington at the Appeal Authority I was reimbursed my fares for going to Wellington. I had to take in proof of my travel expenses. This must be done with an appointment at the department. Then, they reimbursed me my fare.
The hearing is formal. It is like a proper court room, although they were very friendly and told me to take my time. Not many people actually present their case themselves. They normally get an advocate to do it. However; my advocate and I felt that the court would go easier if I presented it myself. So I did. They helped me through the process.
The hardest part was when the department's lawyer started asking questions, I have now learnt to be more careful about facts and figures. I was not prepared for this, but I just said I don't know, which went in my favour. The reason for this was if my property was owned as a business I would know the details of that business in and out. This was not the case, I could not quote figures off the top of my head, which proved I was not operating as a business.
The departments' lawyer was trying to win the case and present that I owned the home for profit and that it was a business. I just stated the facts. After the hearing it was adjourned and a break was taken . I was told what time to go back to court. They then told me I had won. I was not aware of this as it is a very legal process and I could not understand all the legal terminology. .My advocate asked me if I had won, I said "I think so" .
This was not the end of it and still is not. On coming out of the court my advocate got straight on the phone and rang the department and stated that they had ruled in my favour, Could we have an appointment to see them. It was a week later before they would give us as appointment. So I was left a further week with $220.00 a week. The court had stated that on top of my Accommodation Supplement I was entitled to a Special Benefit.
On going to see the department, they ensured my benefit was updated with a special benefit , however, this was an emergency one as it took a further six weeks for the ruling to come out from the court.
The ruling, when it came from the court said , I should have my accommodation supplement , as well as a special benefit because without it my son and I were in a deficit situation. The ruling did not state what the department actually needed to pay out in terms of money.
It took a further two months before the department decided to back - date my accommodation supplement. They could not even get that right. When they first paid me out, they only paid me out half, which I had originally turned down. So, my advocate and I had to go and explain to them, that they owed me another half. The interesting thing is that it is still not over as the department's ruling on my need for a special benefit has still not been finalised. My advocate and I believe that the special benefit should be backdated at least to the first of the first 01. Yet, this has not yet occurred. We are still looking at this and another issue with regards to why they have been paying me a non-standard rate of benefit, which should not be paid at this rate.
Recommendations: On putting together this document I could see that there was need for changes in the way that the department operates. I have put together some recommendations that would perhaps stop the confusion from occurring which has been the case in my situation.
1. re work testing I had moved to Palmerston North in order to complete my Social Work Degree. I paid for the shifting of furniture and household appliances myself. This in itself showed my commitment to the degree. Perhaps the case manager could be trained in assessing how why the person has left there home, why have they paid for themselves to shift. Surely these are signs of the commitment the person has to there degree. ( refer previous page 11.)
I recommend that more consideration be given to those who are meeting their work testing obligations and preparing for work so that different aspects of "support" from the department are in harmony.
2. Establishing and adhering to the right to an accommodation supplement. If it is known that the person has a cash asset but is not making a profit that their right to an accommodation supplement is established for the period they are studying. If there is not change to their circumstances the original decision should stand. This could be done in conjunction with work testing obligations being placed on hold while studying. The same should be put in place for those who have a cash asset but have proven by a bank letter once, that they are entitled to a bank loan. That should be the end of it.
I recommend that once a situation has been assessed and decisions made these should be adhered to . In this case the appropriate time to establish income support would be at the time work testing is suspended.
3. Assessing a Persons Commitment To Training: In agreeing with the person's right to train, the case manager could be taught to evaluate the situation themselves, to assess commitment and with the help of a check-list and then go on to assess entitlements. ie
1/ Why has the person shifted to Palmerston North 2/ How much has it cost them to move ( surely that shows a commitment) 3/ Take into account the emotional cost it has taken, ie moving, leaving friends and loved ones. 4/ Moving a child and moving with children is a huge commitment, changing there school is risky on there education, changing there friends is emotional hard. On top that to have there parent struggling to feed them is added stress. 5/ If they have stayed and survived some how when told to go back to there home town that shows a commitment. 6/ If they have failed some papers and are prepared to go back that shows a commitment. Surely a simple evaluation like this would make life a lot easier for both client and case manager.
I recommend that an evaluation checklist be used to assess commitment prior to assessing income support.
4. The need for staff training. With the likes of Palmerston North being a university city along with the fact that the department is encouraging people to retrain, there has been and will continue to be an increase of mature students who have other commitments such as children and houses they own, specify the situations likely to be encountered eg. s5.11.100 relocating to complete a degree.
I recommend that in University Cities the Department trains its staff to deal with specific situations likely to be encountered. eg s5.11.100
Perhaps also, some case managers could be given specialised training in dealing with someone who owns a property and has moved to attend a university to continue there training. They could know the ins and outs of this policy. It would also give the case manager some extra job satisfaction.
5. Annual Reviews: When you are a recipient of the Domestic Purposes Benefit or Widows Benefit and are in receipt of Training Incentive Allowance, you are required to attend a yearly planning meeting. You sign a Job Seekers Agreement.
'Work-testing' involves mandatory participation in activities beginning with interviews conducted by Work and Income New Zealand. The purpose of the planning meetings is to assist clients in their search for work by providing them with sensible suggestions and way to achieve them. An agreement is signed by both parties.
I recommend that at this yearly planning meeting it would be a good idea to ensure that nothing had changed in the person's circumstances, and that this be the basis for making other decisions.
6. re Advice to apply for a bank loan: I had been advised on numerous occasions when declined for an accommodation supplement to go and get a bank loan. I had to go through what was at first a humiliating experience, going to the bank to get another letter on why I was not entitled to a bank loan; no money to pay it back as I had debt. Surely once would be sufficient. A note to this effect should be placed on the persons file and used as the basis for reassessing the persons entitlements.
I recommend that when a person has been referred to a bank to get a loan and has been declined that a note to this effect be put on the persons file so that as long as the persons circumstances do not change this requirement is NOT repeated.
7. re Changes In Case Managers A pattern emerged each year at my benefit renewal. When my case manager changed my accommodation supplement was stopped. It would be simple for a note to be placed on a persons file as to why they were being paid something unusual. For example, in my situation, a note explaining why although I owned an asset I had an accommodation supplement granted to me. There is no good reason why decisions should not survive changes in case managers.
I recommend that when decisions are made, especially unusual ones, the fact and reasons for it are noted and that these stand irrespective of changes of case managers.
8. Informing People Of Their Entitlements This one has come up time and time again from the (SSAA) and the High Court and the Minister of Social Welfare keeps telling the department time and time again that they should tell people there entitlements. I was not told these. I had shown a commitment to study yet, it was one good case manager I came across gave me information on my entitlements the rest I had to research myself.
I was left to live on $220.00 a week with a fourteen year old teenage boy for eight months. I was told not to bother coming in for any extra assistance as I was not entitled to it.
I recommend that when a person first applies to the Department for assistance that their circumstances are fully assessed and their appropriate entitlement determined.
9. re Special Benefit If the case manager had done a simple assessment on me (which is a form that gives them the formula to work out wether someone is in a deficit situation) to see wether I had a deficit, I would have got the special benefit the (SSAA) decided I was entitled to.
I recommend that the case managers use the special benefit formula to assess beneficiaries entitlement to it.
10. The Value of BRC Decisions My accommodation supplement was stopped again in 2001 after having been reinstated by a (BRC) The case manager stating at the second Benefit Review Hearing that the first ( BRC) in 2000 had got it wrong. I find it extraordinary that this could happen. (BRC) decisions should not be reversible by another Benefit Review Committee where there are no changes in circumstances.
I recommend that the decision of a( BRC) be only changed by a higher body.
11. Discretion: There appears no good reason why there should be a discretion. Staff should use the process specified and make the necessary decision. When I have had a case manager who has applied this discretion I have not had a problem. This happened once.
I recommend that the use of discretion be limited to situations where the situation is not clear cut. That wherever appropriate, specified processes be used and decisions made accordingly.
12. re Mistakes: When my file was received from the department of Work and Income there was found to be a letter on my file which did not pertain to me in any way, it was not even addressed to me, yet action was taken on the basis of it.
I am aware that case managers are busy people, but care must be taken when filing and when mistakes are revealed they should be acknowledged appropriately.
I recommend that greater care be taken when filing papers and that when mistakes occur that these are acknowledged and apologised for.
13. The Implementation Of Decisions: After having been to the (SSAA) the judge had ruled that I was in a deficit situation and should immediately see work and income when I returned to Palmerston North. Although my advocate got on the phone to the department as soon as the ruling came out, it was a week later before I could get an appointment to see my case manager. It was also some time after that that my special benefit was granted. I was in a situation where there was no food in my cupboards and no money for food having just paid to go to Wellington for the appeal.
14. re: The Implementation Of Decisions: I am now waiting for my back dated Special Benefit and an answer as to why a non-standard $22.00 a week has been deducted from my income support, a total of $7,000.
The SSAA indicated "urgency" yet it took a week to get an appointment to discuss the emergency situation. Such delays are not meant to happen. This situation needs to be addressed.
I recommend that procedures be implemented to give an appropriate immediate response to decisions by for example the Social Security Appeal Authority that urgency be taken.
I recommend that Work and Income ensure that clients are informed as to why money is deducted out of their benefit and what can be done to resolve any disputes.
While researching for this paper I gained a clearer understanding of the correlation between the Neo Liberal approach to politics and the changes within the structure of the department of Work and Income and benefit entitlements.
Deprivation and Need: The definitions of these were effectively changed in 1991, Prior to 1991, benefit levels were to provide an opportunity for beneficiaries to 'belong and participate' in New Zealand society(Royal Commission on Social Security, 1972) This would mean as living standards improve so should benefit levels. The components of 'belonging and participation' require a consideration of what it means to live in New Zealand at any given time, and those requirements will change over time. For example, at one time ownership of a private telephone would not have been required to participate and belong, but in the 1990s telephone use is increasingly indispensable for social and economic activity and communication, which are intrinsic aspects of a sense of belonging and participation."
"The position now is towards 'social assistance', The change represented a movement towards an absolute measure of poverty 'Genuine need' and 'income support' capture this shift quite precisely. 'Social Security' emphasises the right to a benefit based on citizenship , while 'income support' and 'social assistance' are based on individual assessment in which the recipient is defined as a consumer with needs rather than as citizen with rights." (ibid, 1997)
This is a complete shift in view, in the past it was a right to participate in society, today, it is a citizen having to prove that there need is genuine, for individual assistance. This creates problems due to the fact, an individual must know what they are entitled too. The department is closely related to the policy structure of neo liberalism which the government has moved more towards over the last 20 years or so.
While neoliberal proponents contend that opportunities are available to all who make the required effort, and that beneficiaries are unemployed because they are not motivated to work, the available evidence does not support this theory. As recent as March 1985 there were only 140,000 people receiving income-tested social welfare payments in New Zealand . A jump from that level to more than 340,000 people took place between 1985 and 1992- the period in which economic reforms were producing large-scale job losses in agriculture, manufacturing and construction. (Boston, Dalziel, P & St John ,1999)
The government decided that they ought to provide only a minimal safety net for those in serious need. As Upton (1987) claims, it is a consistent theme of neo-liberal writing that the provision of a safety net against extreme hardship and physical misery is a proper function of the government in a free society.
Making benefits more difficult to obtain through keeping true entitlements hidden is the government stating, ' you should not be on a benefit, your should be self supporting through your own contribution' Do Beneficiaries know there entitlements? Beneficiaries as a rule do not know there entitlements. Work and Income would more than likely argue that they do tell people there entitlements . Is this a fact?. They run major advertising campaigns yet. " The glossy brochure/ corporate culture approach to welfare assisted the government in achieving a radical change of supplementary benefits system without the public realising what has been happening. Huge sums of money are spent on public relations which are aimed at convincing the general public that all is well, rather than informing clients of what they are entitled to" (McGurk, 1996,)
There is a very great need for beneficiaries to know what they are entitled to, this point was even raised in a briefing paper to the in-coming government prepared by the Wellington Welfare Benefits Forum, in September 1996. "The knowledge on extra benefit entitlements is not freely given by Work and Income staff, this leaves a growing need for beneficiaries to ensure they know what they are entitled to ." This situation still applies according to all the discussion at the recent national advocacy conference November 01.
"The Change Team On Targeted Social Assistance, other wise known as the 'razor gang', designed a new 'seamless, global system of abatement of all social assistance,... disincentives that arise from a set of arbitrary effective marginal tax rates caused by overlapping income tests have been exacerbated". (Kelsey, 1995)With this targeted form of social assistance it is more important than ever for beneficiaries to know what they are entitled to.
It is not the case that those on a benefit do not want to work, but more the fact that there has been a shift over the last 10 years or so to 'blame the beneficiary, lazy dole bludger or single parent'. It is obviously considered important to blame the person rather than allow people to appreciate the problems of an unjust system. This blaming shifts the eyes of the public off the government who should be helping ensure there are jobs, and adequate benefit levels and onto beneficiaries, therefore, helping the government cover up what is their real agenda. To save money.
Along with the benefit cuts have gone tax cuts to those who are lucky enough to have a job and are earning money. Tax cuts of 1.3 billion dollars was given in 1996-1997, rising to the second round of tax cuts in 1998/99 on the other hand benefits were unfordable and were cut to the tune of 1.3 billion dollars.(1999,p.90)This gives the appearance of a transfer of funds from the have little's to the have much more.
It could be argued that financial help is available still through targeted social assistance, ie special benefits and other such assistance. Yet, how do the people know what is available if they are not told. It has Special Benefit entitlement. This represents nearly two thirds of all beneficiary households. It has been estimated that a total figure of some 175,000 households are still missing out from a Special Benefit entitlement (2000, p1)
The impact of neo-liberal thinking has filtered through to the general public and rather than facing up to and admitting there is a problem with poverty it is easier to blame the victim and believe the propaganda that is filtered down from the government and through the media.
Something I have learnt through doing this project is the fact that it is important to read between the lines of what is being spoken through the media and from government departments and see for yourself whether it is fact or fiction.
I have given a number of specific recommendations which would hopefully mean that others including those in circumstances similar to my own would not be treated as inappropriately as I was. With regards to cost and savings, while the recommendations will cost money, they will result in significant saving in the short, medium and long term.
To really address the issues surrounding the many recurring problems many people experience trying to access their legitimate entitlements to income support some structural and cultural issues must be addressed, Whether there is any commitment within the Government or the Department in addressing these issues remains to be seen.
I would like to acknowledge Ian Ritchie for hosting my placement, support and the endless supply of tea- bags and helping direct this project.
Andrew Kibblewhite for his support and expertise throughout my fight with the department of work and income.
The various community people I met and the various discussion we had concerning this project.
To the department of work and income for making this project possible without there constant support it would not have eventuated.
The full report is available from me. Ian
Ian Ritchie Feilding R D 7 ph/fax 06 3289 618 06 354 3804 w