Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sickness, injury, disability or pregnancy

I haven’t had an opportunity to look at the government's benefit proposals in detail (I plan to do that tomorrow – it's even sadder when you know I’m on holiday), but I want to start by discussing the, much publicized, announcement that WINZ will focus more on getting people on the Sickness or Invalid's benefit into work. I don’t know the details; in his interview with Kathryn Ryan the Minister of Social Welfare was very vague on how much this would be voluntary, and how much it will be compulsory. His favourite phrase was 'nothing will be compulsory at the moment' (which strongly implies that it will be compulsory in the future). So rather than discussing the particulars, I want to talk more generally about disability, sickness, and employment.

The sickness benefit is available for people who are unable to work due to sickness, injury, disability or pregnancy. The invalids benefit is available for people who are permanently and severely restricted in their capacity for work because of a sickness, injury or disability (why the difference? I don't know. Although it's made even more pointed by the fact that the Invalids benefit is paid more. I'm lying I do know that it's a nasty sort of moralistic division between really deserving, and possibly shirking poor).

The 'services' currently provided by WINZ focus on teaching people how to look for a job and matching up people and jobs (I'm being very generous with my description here). By making such a big deal of offering these services to people on the sickness and invalid’s benefits (and later forcing people to use them) the government is saying that they think the main things people on the Invalid’s and Sickness benefits need to get into jobs is access to these services.

I say bullshit.* I'm going to explore the actual barriers that stop people who are sick, injured, disabled and pregant from getting a job.

The most obvious barrier is the sickness, injury, disability, or pregnancy. To get on the sickness or invalids benefit you have to have a doctor sign off saying that you are unable to work, so it's not just a barrier - it's a medically certified barrier.

There are all sorts of things that the government as a whole could do to ensure that people who are sick, injured, disabled or pregnant can participate fully in society. For example, many health conditions are exacerbated by living in low-quality housing that isn't properly heated (read most NZ houses). The government could do something about this, both by providing more, warmer, state houses, and by instituting better building standards.

What about stress? Many (most?) chornic healthy conditions are exacerbated by stress. Poverty is stressful (and anyone who is on these benefits is poor). Dealing with WINZ is stressful (I've known people suffer from serious health relapses due to the stress of trying to deal with WINZ). There are many thing that the government as a whole, and WINZ in particular could do to improve the health of many people who are sick, injured or disabled. Why aren't they starting there?

Lets move away from the sickness, injury, disability or pregnancy for a bit. After all to focus on those is still to imply that it's a problem with the person that they are not currently employed, and that's not what I believe. There is a huge amount of unreasonable prejudice against hiring people who are sick, disabled, or injured. Everyone I know who has fitted in those categories has had a much harder time finding a job than similarly qualified and capable people who don't. Why not start by working on the people with the prejudice, rather than ask people who are discriminated against to jump through more hoops?

That's only the start though, because it's not just the unreasonable prejudice that is the problem, it's the prejudice that is considered totally reasonable. For example, if someone had a chronic health condition that didn't stop them working a forty hour week most of the time, but that flared up a few times a year and the worker required a couple of weeks off a time, then it would be considered perfectly reasonable not to hire them. Or if someone had a full-time job and then developed a health condition which meant that they could only work three days a week, it'd be perfectly legal to fire them.

WINZ is obsessed with work as the be all and end all of people's contribution to society. But we only get to contribute to society on employer's times. Employers don't have to (and generally don't) take on workers whose health allows them to work some of the time.

This is ridiculous. Why do we let our economic system dictate our participation in society, rather than organise an economic system that allows everyone to participate? Almost everyone can do some useful and meaningful work, if they're allowed to do it on their terms. The fact that it doesn't work like that, that we aren't all able to contribute according to our ability is not the problem of individual people, who have sicknesses, injuries, or disabilities, which don't fit employer's wants.

* For the sake of clarity I also want to emphasise that these ‘services’ are generally not what unemployed people need to get jobs either. I think changing the Reserve Bank Act would do more to lower unemployment than all the 'work4u' seminars in the universe.


  1. Your analysis leaves a very relevant fact unmentioned: the number of sickness beneficiaries has increased rapidly the last few years.

    That means that either a: the number of NZers falling sick is aso increasing rapidly, or b: there are people on the sickness benefit who shouldn't be. Option 'a' seems rather less likely than option 'b'.

    I have no idea whether this comes down to bludgers working the system, overanxious doctors, WINZ reducing unemployment by recategorising the unemployed, or a combination of the three. Whatever it is, we can either have a Labour-led govt do something about it, or a National-led govt do something about it. Not doing something about it isn't on the agenda - that would offer a govt's political opponents way too much ammunition.

    It's basically a question of who we'd prefer to tackle the job - Labour or National. I'm picking Labour as marginally less likely to biff genuinely sick people off the benefit.

  2. Anonymous10:42 am

    The increase in sickness beneficiaries has been going on for a long time. There was a big shift of people off the dole and onto sickness when the govt was wanting to seriously get the unemployment figures down. Can't remember if that was the Nats or Labour... I'm thinking 90s so I guess it was the Nats originally?

    However this doesn't mean that people on sickness shouldn't be there. If you spend long enough on the dole (i.e. being poor) then your chances of getting ill are much higher than if you had enough money ti live on and keep yourself well. It ain't rocketscience.

    I haven't seen the figures, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if there ARE more people ill now than say in the 90s simply because of the accumulating effect on the population of long term unemployment. Not to mention the other factors like increase in food prices, GP visits etc.

    We also know that chronic illness is on a significant rise in the West, including health issues associated with depression (the reason for the most GP visits). It's not hard to see both a general increase in people being unable to work, and the previously mentioned increase in people on other benefits becoming unwell.

    The other reason the sickness benefit figures have gone up is because it's now harder to get on the Invalid's Benefit.

    As for the 'genuinely sick', there is a system in place for determining who is eligible. You have to go to Med school for more than 5 years in order to approve someone for a medical benefit. Getting on the IB is much harder than it used to be. But even getting on Sickness, doctors still have their professional reputations to think of and while there are some doctors of conscience out there who will cut strugglin people some slack (thank god) I don't see a whole bunch paving the way for the 'ungenuinely' ill.

    In fact WINZ seems to be engaging in a lower level version of what ACC have long been masters at. Using conservative doctors to redefine what 'ill' actually means. Hmm... maybe one could also consider the big push of the last decade by ACC to dump its clients and those clients ending up on sickness benefits instead...

  3. I agree with weka regarding the increase in sickness benefit numbers - part of it will also be that I suspect mental illness is more likely to now be recognised by doctors (as it should be) and thus those suffering end up on the sickness benefit (where they should be) instead of the dole.

    I can vouch secondhand for the stress of being on a benefit. I was unable to work for three years due to ME (chronic fatigue syndrome) and depression (each feeding the other). Luckily my family was able to support me and I did not have to seek WINZ support. However I encountered many others without my luck. Without exception they were sicker than me and sick for longer. Their tales of the stress of constant WINZ work-testing and pressure to get back to work of some sort, when they had a chronic illness that looked deceptively like laziness, made me very grateful for my own good fortune.

  4. How do you think changing the Reserve Bank Act would be effective in reducing unemployment? What specific changes would be necessary?

    Incidentally, the Progressive distribution workers' lockout ended over a month ago. Why are you still displaying the ad on your blog?

  5. The government presumably believes that people working as opposed to being on a benefit is a good thing - so if there is an incentive to work (e.g. changing that marginal income to lets say $2ph) then it might create an extra dollar or two for the country somewhere in the economy, that could then, theoretically, be used to pay larger invalid benefits or whatever.

    No since there are jobs that almost anyone can do - one of these is telemarketing. Some people can and are good at this BUT don't want to do it for 1 dollar an hour or whatever they are left with after the marginal tax rate. So they create the incentives above - which seem unfair but may be "win-win"

    > There is a huge amount of unreasonable prejudice against hiring people who are sick, disabled, or injured.

    There should be (and I presume is) some sort of benefit subsidy for employing a sickness beneficiary?

    > Why do we let our economic system dictate our participation in society

    Because we don’t have the power to enforce otherwise. The problem is that would require the ability to read peoples minds (would you have hired this person if they were not disabled?)

    > Almost everyone can do some useful and meaningful work, if they're allowed to do it on their terms.

    The economy is complex nowadays, so it is hard to tell what actually adds value in many industries - but you could have an argument for paid community service (i.e. pay charities for working with people to find nominal work, which would otherwise be on benefits or in prison or whatever).

  6. Anonymous5:08 pm

    I literally just came off the Invalid's benefit last week.

    It is a fucking relief to finally be off it. Being on the Invalid's benefit is a living hell in my experience. The meetings, the threats to cut your benefit all the time, the hoops you have to jump through... and THEN last year when I was terribly unwell, I was told that WINZ would not provide me with any 'extra assistance' (I literally couldn't do any housework and was afraid to walk outside - yet my daughter still had to get to kindy etc and live in this house safely while my husband was at work full-time). Anyway - I was told I did not qualify for even a tiny amount of extra assistance because my 'legs work'.

    What-the-fuck-ever. Why was I on an Invalid's benefit if I did not need the help?? And what on earth is the Invalid's Benefit for if it is not supposed to assist people in times of great need?

    Anyway, I can say right now that if they start work-testing people on sickness/invalid's benefits, people on those benefits will DIE as a result. Mainly from the utter stress they will experience. I'm pretty sure it happens already.

    So WINZ is now officially going to be in the business of tipping people over the edge. I guess that means a few less people for them to 'look after'. It makes me totally sick.

    I completely disagree with work-testing for people on sickness/invalid's benefits. If someone on a sickness/invalid's benefit COULD work, chances are they would work. There are enough fucking doctor's visits assuring WINZ that the person is indeed unwell... surely that is enough??

    Why put people who are sick through even more shit in order to get the piddly amount of money which barely enables them to pay the bills anyhow? DO THEY THINK PEOPLE ENJOY LIVING LIKE THAT???

    For me, not being able to pay the bills makes my psychological problems even worse. Going in to WINZ makes things worse. Going to see the doctor and talk about personal and upsetting things over and over makes it worse. Having the benefit cut out of the blue for no particular reason makes it worse. Being told we owe $500 despite doing everything WINZ asked us to, and THEN having the case-worker magically 'write it off' so we don't owe anything makes things worse - AND it thoroughly pisses me off. Being told when I am terribly unwell and utterly desperate that I do not 'qualify' for any extra help that the Invalid's benefit is SUPPOSED to provide in dire situations nearly tipped *me* over the edge. That was a low fucking day.

    Sorry for the rant.

    I am so glad I am off the Invalid's benefit and I will be keeping my beady eye on the news to find out if the government are further abusing people on sickness/invalid's benefits.

    I just wish there was something I could actually DO, to make a change. Nobody cares about what a 'crazy' has to say.

    Now I wonder how on earth I would fare if I was suddenly not with my husband anymore and had to go back on the Invalid's benefit. There is no way in hell I could cope with work testing. The stress would drive me absolutely insane and no doubt the government would then take my daughter away from me.

    I certainly don't like that scenario.

    Take care,


  7. Anonymous5:03 pm

    I am 35 years old, married with 1 child, and another one on the way. I can say some people like myself have ended up on the sickness benefit because the stress, & possibly resulting depression that has been incurred by the Government by using the WINZ department, to harrass, harang, bully, pickon etc. I am not what some people who have always had been in permanent work, would would call a dole bludger or long term unenmployed. I have worked every crap job under sometimes up to 10 a year. All the winz department has offered me is there solution to keep people in the poverty trap & screwing with there heads through the brainwashing work & 4 you seminars. Perhaps the real phrase that the government uses under there breath is work or otherwise we'll fxxx you with our policy.

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