Without doubt the Ministry of Social Development is the most controversial Ministry in the New Zealand Government. The agencies that are under its umbrella – Child Youth and Family, Department of Work and Income New Zealand – are constantly assailed by media coverage for reasons often less than complimentary. Much of the time the cause is Government policy, and the philosophical issue of whether or not it is appropriate for the Government to be administering social services.
My experience with the Ministry of Social Development began in 2000 when I was put on an invalids benefit that gave me $180 a week. I used that money to save towards starting study with the University of Canterbury in July of that year, whilst paying a small amount as board to my parents, saving $50 a week and using the rest as my weekly allowance. Generally in those days I was left alone and only had to report when my circumstances medically, financially or geographically changed. During this period I was allowed to work part time (up to 15 hours per week) and not have my benefit affected. Even as late as 2007, when I stopped the unemployment benefit and started working full time at Pak N Save, my reporting requirements were still largely unchanged. During this time though, I noticed a number of random acts of pedantic behaviour that just did not seem necessary, such as a letter saying I had been over paid by $5 or some tiny amount and that they were correcting it by deducting the money from my account; of changes to the paper work in some effort or another to make the system somehow work better – but in reality become a bit more bureaucratic.
Fast forward to May 2011. Christchurch has had a devastating earthquake, and I among thousands of others working in the C.B.D. have lost my job. Although the benefit has been modestly increased to $206, a year and a quarter after finally resolving a potentially damaging gambling habit, I have only just started building up my finances again. The collapse of the job market in Christchurch in everything except (de)construction because of the earthquake has crippled the economy, and with the ground still rocking, I decide to go back to study part time for a few months at Vision College. And this is where the trouble began.
The decision itself to resume studying was fine, except that when I told Department of Work and Income that I was going back to study, they cut my benefit off with no prior warning, leaving me $200+ in the red which I only noted when my EFTPOS card refused to work one day. I went to Department of Work and Income, and was left waiting for nearly an hour. When I was finally seen, they refused to reinstate it and issued me an emergency food grant. Finally after a couple days they tell me to come back for another appointment, at which I am told to apply for the Student Allowance which is truly pathetic as it is worth less than the Unemployment Benefit – for a government wanting to get people into work or education, it seemed to defy logic that the social support for students is less than that for people to sit on their rear ends at home. Applying for this was more frustrating and ended up taking nearly two weeks during which time my parents had to suspend my board payments and give me an allowance themselves.
The rest of 2011 passed relatively peacefully. The reversion back to the Unemployment Benefit was painless. However it was not long before I started getting called to so-called seminars where a Work and Income staff member would get all of those who attended to write down on paper what they had done in the previous several weeks to find a job. They were then treated to a 10 minute lecture about where W.I.N.Z. thought the jobs were, before being dismissed. I learnt nothing at all of use and the only reason anyone ever turned up was because our benefits would be stopped if we did not. This was the pattern for most of 2012 and early 2013.
In the end for all their supposed services and expertise, I got my current job all by myself with no help into it whatsoever by anyone from the M.S.D. or its umbrella agencies.
My estimate of the staff of M.S.D. and their umbrella agencies is that they are desensitized by the operating climate of their employers, and subsequently when clients need empathy they get suspicion. When they need urgent help they get pedantic delays. And ultimately, whilst there is no justification for murdering innocent people, the Ashburton office shooting was probably caused by a disaffected individual who could take the system no more. As for what I think needs to happen to the Ministry of Social Development? I believe a ministerial inquiry into its form and function needs to be held, and the recommendations implemented within a year or two. Failure to do that should result in the clean out of the senior management.