Blessed Are the Unemployed

So this is a blessing? We're blessed in being dependent, jobless, without resources, without status?

BY: Adrienne Thompson


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We didn't want to do it, but after a fruitless month we decided we'd better apply for the benefits we can claim. That felt like a big lump to swallow. We've never even been entitled to family support before now. Venturing into this world of WINZ [Work and Income New Zealand] and IRD [Inland Revenue Department] feels like trying to push our way up a hillside covered with thick gorse. We collect pamphlets and booklets and forms and try to puzzle them out. We put off applying because we keep thinking that next week we'll have a job.

We discover that different schemes cancel each other out. If we apply for family support we should get it, but if we receive an unemployment benefit it seems we don't get it any more, so we debate about whether it's worth applying. We had to declare our income for 1997-98 in order to get one allowance. But we had to declare our income for 98-99 to obtain community cards. The gratuity we received from our former employer means we've had too much money in the past twenty-six weeks to receive the unemployment benefit for another ten weeks.

Along with confusion and frustration, we feel guilty and embarrassed about asking for anything at all.

We wanted help, so we went to the IRD office. Sorry, they said, we don't talk to customers face to face. Please call this number. Dial, wait on hold, press this digit if you want this service, finally get to talk to a faceless voice and get our questions answered.

We take a form into WINZ. The large, impeccably groomed lady at the desk is friendly and helpful, but is a slightly menacing presence--like a strict school principal. She checks our form and says we've filled it in correctly but we can't just hand it over to her. Please put it in an envelope and mail it back to us.

We feel confused, cross, and out of control. We feel the system hates us. We look around at the others in the office. A Nigerian woman swathed head to foot in flowing gown, a man with his leg in plaster. Tired people, ordinary people, out-of-work people. Like us. We don't want to be counted here.

We're assigned a case officer, a cheerful, friendly young man who is positive and encouraging. "You're eminently employable. I'll make an appointment to meet you again in a month but I don't expect to see you back here." Grudgingly grateful for his encouragement, I feel irrationally resentful of his cheerfulness.

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