A Policy A Day: Sickness and Disability Benefits

In the lead-up to the election, we are examining a policy a day. We’re exploring a variety of policy areas, explaining the background and analysing some of the policy options, with a mixture of technocracy and values-based approaches. Inevitably, some opinion will make its way in and we make no apology for that – after all, we’re voters too. A list of all the articles is available hereEnjoy!

Today’s post is written by Zoe Higgins

More than 20% of people in New Zealand have a fdisability. Over 150,000 people in New Zealand access mental health and addiction services every year. Proportionally, Māori are more likely to experience long-term illness or disability and to receive less support. In the lead-up to this election, we need to be talking about chronic illness, mental illness, and disability. I’d like to be talking about employment, housing, education, access to public spaces, and healthcare – but this article will touch only on one small facet of the disability or illness experience: the benefits system.

In this article, we’ll whirlwind through two of the key problems that people receiving sickness and disability benefits encounter: the pressure to return to work or training before they’re able to, and the means-testing of partners so that people in relationships are unable to receive benefits. We’ll then look at the policy positions of individual parties and see how they measure up against these problems.

Benefits in New Zealand
In New Zealand, right now there are several benefits and payments that cover people with long-term illness or disability who are not in work.

Supported Living Payment: If your ability to work is permanently and severely restricted by an illness, injury, or disability. Between $214 and $221 per week. 84,331 people receive this – around 3.2% of the working-age population.

JobSeeker Support: If you can only work part-time because of an illness, disability, or injury, or you’re looking for work. Between $141 and $212 a week. 55,747 people receiving because of health condition or disability – around 1.9% of the working-age population.

Disability Allowance: For ongoing costs related to a disability. Up to $62.47 a week.

ACC payments: If you are unable to work owing to an accident or injury you may be eligible for ACC payments.

It might seem confusing that people who aren’t able to work are expected to apply for JobSeeker Support. Up until 2013, New Zealand had the Sickness Benefit and the Unemployment Benefit, but then those were rolled together into JobSeeker. For most people, this is “work-tested” – people receiving JobSeeker are required to be looking for full-time or part-time work. People with an illness or disability that prevents them from seeking work receive JobSeeker with a medical deferral for a certain period of time. This requires a doctor’s certificate. Usually, the certificate has to be renewed every 3 months, even for ongoing conditions such as PTSD, chronic fatigue, or autism. There was a strong reaction at the time to the reforms, and the problems seem to have continued.

In preparation for this article, I talked with people receiving JobSeeker Support with medical deferral. Very few people had positive stories. National’s headline policy was to cut the number of people on JobSeeker by 30% by June 2017, and it’s clear that there’s significant pressure from case workers to move people off JobSeeker, including people with medical deferral – regardless of whether they’re ready for full-time work or training. One woman I talked to was signed up for a full-time training course by her case worker without her consent. Her GP had approved only a certain number of work hours per week; the course required her to be ready for full-time work and hand in 10 CVs each day. She managed to attend it for a week before having a further breakdown of her mental health, delaying her recovery by months

The conventional wisdom at Work and Income is that work is a positive influence on health. This is very often true. Most people receiving benefits would love to work. Many of them were in work, until chronic fatigue or nausea or anxiety or MS made employment functionally impossible. Employment can boost self-esteem and give us purpose, skills, and social contact. It can also be demeaning, isolating, or exhausting. Eamonn Marra writes powerfully at the Wireless about the effects of work – both positive and negative – on his own mental health. In my own circles, a close friend took a job delivering takeaway food when their benefit payment stopped. Spending hours in a car, unable to get away from food smells, re-triggered their anorexia and depression and sent them back into hospital. Helping people into meaningful and appropriate work is a great goal, but it’s not something that happens quickly, and it certainly shouldn’t be the only aim of the benefits system.

Personally, I don’t believe in valuing humans according to whether or not they’re in paid employment. But, that aside, as one of my interviewees said, “If what they [Work and Income] want is to get people back into jobs, they’re doing a really bad job of it.” Working adversarially, imposing sanctions, pushing people into work that delays their recovery: these hinder rather than help people on the path to employment. Effective policy in this area would offer a realistically paced route back into work through part-time training/employment (starting as low as 5 or 10 hours a week) or part-time volunteering. It would involve training for Work and Income case workers on the particular needs of people with chronic illness, mental health issues, or disabilities which prevent them from finding work. It would take into account the fluctuating nature of many illnesses, where it’s common to function well for a day or a week, and then lapse back into extreme exhaustion or distress. It would work collaboratively rather than seeking to punish. There’s an existing model for this approach in groups like Workbridge, which no one I talked to had been able to access.

So we’ve talked about JobSeeker. The other main disability/sickness benefit that people might receive is the Supported Living Payment. I don’t have the space to go into this extensively, but it’s available to people whose ability to work is restricted permanently and severely by illness or disability.

At a recent event organised by the super-cool Disabled Persons Assembly, the main issue raised around the Supported Living Payment was the fact that the recipient’s partner, if they have one, is means-tested. In effect, this means that if your partner is in full-time employment and you’re unable to work, you won’t receive the Supported Living Payment.

There are a number of problems with the assumption that someone’s partner will look after them financially and absolve them of any need for income. These problems are especially acute in the case of disability or chronic illness, where there’s already a power imbalance in the relationship. People with disabilities experience domestic violence at higher rates than people without disabilities. People with mental health issues are at four times the risk of violence, while women with disabilities are twice as likely to experience assault or abuse. Given the epidemic of domestic violence in New Zealand (it affects between 33 and 39% of women, according to Women’s Refuge) the case for decreasing rather than increasing people’s dependence on their partners seems extremely strong.

The Policies
What do the major parties have to say about these issues? To be honest, not much – it’s been a struggle to find specific information on their policy around sickness and disability benefits.

National re-shuffled the welfare system to create JobSeeker Support, and made it their goal to reduce the number of claimants by 30% by June 2017. They presumably intend to keep going with the status quo, which also includes cuts to mental health services. At a recent event held by the Disabled Persons’ Assembly, a National spokesperson said the party would continue means-testing the partners of people on the SLP.

Labour has no word on sickness and disability benefits, or on reforming welfare. However, they intend to invest $43 million in frontline mental health services over the next 2 years, which would have a huge impact on the lives of many people who are unable to work because of ongoing mental illness. At a recent event held by the Disabled Persons’ Assembly, Labour pledged to remove means-testing of the partners of people on the SLP.

The Greens will increase all core benefits by 20%, increase the amount people can earn before their benefit is cut, and remove financial penalties and excessive sanctions for people receiving benefits. Increasing the amount that people can earn before their benefit is cut will make transitional or part-time work more feasible. Removing excessive penalties and sanctions seems to show a desire to change the adversarial relationship between Work and Income and beneficiaries into a more effective collaborative relationship. The Greens have pledged to remove means-testing of the partners of people on the SLP.

NZ First want to increase the available options for mental health support, which sounds like a positive move. However, they also want “greater scrutiny” of people “moving from the unemployment to the sickness benefit” (it’s unclear precisely which benefits they’re referring to – presumably JobSeeker Support and the SLP.) This sounds like an enormously stressful waste of resources, based on the fear that cunning, not-really-sick beneficiaries are duping doctors in order to gain the princely sum of $212.45 a week. NZ First have said they will consider removing means-testing of the partners of people on the SLP.

ACT say they will “advocate for more continued and generous state support for those with physical and mental conditions which require support”. Confusingly, they also want a 3-year “lifetime limit” on Jobseekers. Presumably, that means that you can only receive Jobseeker support for 3 years in your whole life, which doesn’t square well with advocating support for people with chronic physical or mental illness. ACT didn’t turn up to the Disabled Persons Assembly event.

TOP has no specific policies – but the Unconditional Basic Income would potentially lead to cultural change around benefits and ease the transition into part-time work. It would also guarantee independent income for people unable to work, regardlessof their relationship status.

I’ve barely skimmed the surface of illness and disability politics in New Zealand. Benefits are only a fragment – there’s so much more to say about housing, employment, accessible cities, and social services. I haven’t touched on the gender or race aspects of illness and disability, or how they relate to generational deprivation and income inequality. However, I think it’s revealing to look even briefly at how parties talk and think about vulnerable people who aren’t “useful” as economic units. Keep reading.

Zoe Higgins studied geography at the University of Cambridge. She doesn’t have a chronic illness or disability herself, but is lucky enough to hang out with people who do. She’s a volunteer for the Green Party but these views are her own.

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