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Breaking Bad Law?

Breaking Bad Law?

[An edited version of this post appears on E-Tangata.]

In the opening moments of the 1970s my father left my mother and followed his elusive business dreams to Australia. I have read several letters between the two of them, hurt and angry exchanges, and in all of them she asks him for financial assistance to raise their three children. He sent her a few payments, and eventually the letters and payments ceased.  At some point my mother went on the new domestic purposes benefit for sole parents (well, new in 1973). She stayed on that benefit until I left school, and then she shifted to the DPB woman-alone benefit, and on to superannuation. She was a beneficiary for about 41 years.

During that whole time my mother remained alone. She had offers of marriage but turned them down in part because she did not want to be beholden to richer men. Ironically the State support represented independence for us, despite all the rhetoric about reliance on benefits creating soul-suckingly dependent beneficiaries. My mother taught me about fighting for independence precisely because she was a beneficiary. She did not have to find succour from, or be exploited by, other people, just to survive.

I grew up watching her account for every 1c and 2c piece in our household budget, writing in little notebooks that, over decades, grew to fill drawers in the wall unit in the smoke-yellowed dining room. (And yes she was a beneficiary that smoked, and drank, and we never went hungry, m’kay?) She earned extra money by taking in boarders.

Our mother was deeply concerned to ensure she never overstepped her earning boundaries, and that she never found out where our father had gone, after those early letters stopped coming, so she could honestly report on the benefit forms that she did not know where he was. I clearly remember her actually putting her hands over her ears at one point just so she could not hear us discussing where he was living. ‘Sydney somewhere’ was the most specific fact she allowed herself to learn about him.

In this current period of time, dominated as it is by partisan breast-beating over the speeches, actions and inactions of Metiria Turei, some people might be tempted to use my mother’s story of law-adherence as some kind of moral lesson and counterpoint to Metiria’s.  Don’t. She was not a beneficiary saint or sinner. She just was who she was; she is no paragon or flag-bearer for anyone or anything. Her status as a beneficiary neither enhances nor degrades her moral character and more than her driver’s licence did.

She chose to adhere to the laws of benefit eligibility. And I wonder if it might have cost her dearly to stay alone, as she did, until her death in 2015. She was a gregarious person who shunned many relationships and became quite isolated in her later years. I’ll never know whether she might have been different had she not considered herself bound by such laws.

The only usefulness of her story in the public arena is maybe to prompt discussion about change. Her story is not an end in itself, and never should be. One one further thing: it highlights that the relevant laws in her case have, from their very inception, been doomed to be broken.

Well, to be honest, that is a pretty trite statement. All laws only exist because someone out there will want to break it and do the thing she’s not supposed to do, or fail to behave in the way she is supposed to.

But humour me…and forgive me if you have heard this one before. Instead of looking just at the end result of a given law, it helps to see why it is exists in the first place.

In our heavily targeted benefit system, widows’ benefits and domestic purposes benefits uphold the long-standing social presumption that a husband would, as the primary breadwinner, support his wife and children in the usual nuclear family formation. To be eligible to get a benefit under the Social Security Act 1964, therefore, an applicant must not also be receiving significant financial support from someone else standing in for the missing husband. Applicants must be effectively unsupported if the State is to provide that missing support and effectively ‘step into the shoes’ of the absent husband, or the person who should be providing such support.

The gender-based language has gone, but the absence of support requirement remains. Widows, single people formerly married people, formerly de facto people, must now all be in the same unsupported boat to be eligible for sole parent support (now under s20D of the ’64 Act, formerly known as the DPB sole parents benefit).

If these people do get into a new relationship they must not cross the line into emotional commitment and financial interdependence with another person. To do so would mean they are receiving support from that person. If they do, they must inform that the State of that change in circumstance, be income tested and accept the consequence, including the probable loss of the entire benefit.

And even if eligible, these people can lose some of their benefit if they fail to, or refuse to, name the other parent or to file for a child support assessment under the Child Support Act 1991. And if you thought that was some new neo-liberal rule, ah nope. It has been around since at least 1936, and even earlier, when some deserted wives were able to claim a widow’s benefit provided they could not find the husband who deserted them, and they filed for the earlier equivalent of child support.

Effectively these prohibitions uphold a general rule against resource-pooling designed to ensure that no-one is better off with State support than others would be without it.

In my view these rules shepherded or perhaps forced my mother into a solitary life that I don’t think she really wanted. In many ways she was acting against what we as humans usually do. Regardless of financial circumstances, people try and create bonds and relationships with others. We are social and we need each other. Yet compliance with the laws in this kind of case sets up a stark choice for the sole parent:

  • either live alone with no substantive contact with a romantic partner that crosses an imaginary line into emotional commitment and financial interdependence, and accept support from the State;
  • OR enter such a relationship and lie about its existence, accepting support from the State;
  • OR confess the relationship and lose eligibility.

***

It has amazed me, the extraordinary rhetoric that has swelled in the wake of Metiria Turei’s politically-driven account of her own circumstances in the early 1990s. In particular there has been a broad presumption in the public discourse that the laws that applied are either morally good or morally bad and that by breaching or adhering to such rules people like Metiria and my mother somehow reveal their moral character.

Sometimes morality and law does coincide and it is right that we should punish or promote certain behaviours as a society, if only to discourage others from doing bad things or to encourage others to do good things.

But let’s not fool ourselves that any law is a guide to the human heart.

I generally try not to kill people. That may reveal that I’m not a habitual murderer, but says nothing else about who I am. I regularly break other kinds of laws, or regulations. Over the years I have smoked and ingested drugs, I have trespassed, driven carelessly, assaulted people, sat on a kai table, used obscene language in a public place, walked over someone’s legs in a wharenui, and transgressed all sorts of lines of decency. I’m sure the list goes on and on. My mother used to get me to buy her alcohol and cigarettes after school. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t supposed to do that.

Not one of us leads a life in which we break no law.

By the same token there no point in pretending that any law is neutral. Laws are created in their cultural and political context. While the laws prohibiting resource-pooling appear gender neutral, they are enforced primarily against women and far more rarely against men. The benefit laws reflect a presumption that people live in nuclear families and can therefore struggle to deal with the notion of whāngai (Māori adoptions), for example.  This context doesn’t make the laws moral or immoral, but can lead to consequences that enforce a particular societal structure or view of that structure.

Māori are well aware of the oppression of seemingly ordinary laws that undergird the structure of a society that was never designed with Māori in mind. We ought not forget that Māori survival and social progress in this country has depended in part, at least, on Māori flouting laws; such as pulling up survey pegs, or  occupying land that laws said were no longer theirs, holding so-called illegal protests, and the like. We owe our law-breaking tūpuna a debt of gratitude, in many cases.

Nor am I drawing a false analogy between politically necessary lawbreaking by some in important parts of our history and the actions of genuine benefit fraudsters. I’m not a fan of benefit fraud (for example), and there are people who have been rightly punished for it.  But there is merit in identifying where  laws can set people up for inevitable failure, or have, with the passage of time, created social problems that can only be solved with sufficient political will.

I think our heavily targeted, morally directive welfare system is replete with laws that encourage failure, non-compliance and moral self-absolution.  We need policies that will incentivise law keeping rather than law breaking.

And we don’t need to be distracted by the current storm of moral one-upmanship that helps no one and clarifies nothing.

 

 

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#IAmAmbivalent

#IAmAmbivalent

I am ambivalent about the hashtag du jour (#IAmMetiria) and the issue that gave rise to it. In case you have been under a rock, this hashtag refers to the declaration by Metiria Turei a few days ago that she had over-reported her housing costs, thus claiming a greater degree of social assistance than she was entitled to during her time as a solo mum on the DPB. Metiria made this declaration in the context of the release of the Greens’ welfare policy. I’m ambivalent because there are thousands of people living in poverty in this country, and we need to talk about it; and there is no doubt that Metiria’s kōrero has struck a cord with many. But I am uneasy because many of us now engaged in the discourse created around her statements have found ourselves trapped, as I’ll explain in a moment.

I don’t know Metiria personally.  I do love the fact she graduated from law school to become not only a solicitor but a doyenne of the McGillicuddy Serious Party.  I have no reason to disbelieve these statements about her life prior to her entry into politics:

In three of those flats, I had extra flatmates, who paid rent, but I didn’t tell WINZ. I didn’t dare.

I knew that if I told the truth about how many people were living in the house my benefit would be cut.

And I knew that my baby and I could not get by on what was left.

This is what being on the benefit did to me – it made me poor and it made me lie.

It was a stressful, terrifying experience.

At any moment, WINZ could have caught me and cut off my benefit.

They could have charged me with fraud and made me a criminal as well.

Metiria told this story presumably to highlight the pressures that beneficiaries face in surviving life on a low income coupled with the intrusions of the State in the personal lives of all those who receive this kind of support. Not long after her speech, the IAmMetiria hashtag appeared and social media is replete with people feeding into one of two main narratives:

  1. Metiria is a bad beneficiary, she rorted the system she should pay the money back, resign, or be sacked (and yes, they also have their own not-very-popular hashtag: #IAmNotMetiria)
  2. Metira only did what she did to survive and look after her baby, she stands for us; for my mum, my family, she is a good beneficiary (#IAmMetiria)

My first point of unease is that there is no real dualism in this kind of issue yet we pretend there is. Beneficiaries are neither saints nor sinners.  I resent any narrative that forces me to pick imaginary sides. Bugger off and leave me with my shades of grey and lack of certainty, please.

Further, we are turning the welfare debate yet again into competing salvos of personal stories that are deeply affecting and get us nowhere along the road to working out good solutions or even critiquing the Green Party’s policies in any depth.  Stories are useful if they illustrate the issues of law and policy that need to be changed, but the resulting debate must be disinterested (in the sense of not being influenced by personal involvement in something or impartiality.).  Public debate should not just consist of a rhetorical fight to the death between my personal interests and yours; or between degrees of disadvantage, or rely on prurient, even invasive, fascination with the most heart-wrenching accounts of poverty, disability, survival and difference.

I guess I also struggle with how easy it is for us to exploit our personal stories, and sometimes I wonder about the whiff of instrumental hypocrisy. Many of the people congratulating Metiria for her honesty and candidness no doubt also criticised John Key for using his ‘being raised in a state house’ narrative in the political arena, or Paula Bennett’s ‘struggling solo mother’ narrative being used for similarly political ends. Just because we might empathise more with either one of those individuals’ politics doesn’t make it consistent to have criticised the others for the same damn thing. I’m guilty of the same damn thing in the last week. I lashed out at ACT leader David Seymour for his statements that poor people should not have children if they can’t afford them, getting gratifying likes and retweets for doing so. But he was doing something very similar to Metiria; using carefully chosen words that tap into a deep reservoir of resentment among a particular group of people, inviting me to respond in a tribal manner. This I did, pointing to my own background as evidence of the rightness of my own position. What a sucker I can be.

I can’t be too hard on myself, or any of us really who retreat to our moral high grounds at such moments. We have pasts and they matter to us. We have extraordinary connection to the people, places and experiences that formed us. We all have lived lives that inform our decisions and influence our alliances, hell, fair enough. Our stories can inspire us to lead, too. And those stories are revealing.

In 1969 Carol Hanisch penned a famous paper called ‘The Personal is Political’. In her experience personal problems were important because they could reveal the structural and societal issues that created those problems in the first place.

I’ve been forced to take off the rose colored glasses and face the awful truth about how grim my life really is as a woman. I am getting a gut understanding of everything as opposed to the esoteric, intellectual understandings and noblesse oblige feelings I had in “other people’s” struggles.

And so that phrase ‘the personal is political’ developed a lot of momentum, and became a maxim. And like all maxims, it lost something in the repeat telling. Because Hanisch also said that we couldn’t rest on those personal laurels:

…personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.

We have to take the leap from using our own personal experience to identify structural problems in our society to being able to consider collective political solutions that might be best for people different to ourselves. If we keep failing to take that leap, we head down the road to sterile tribalism, if we are not there already. And I think, for many of us, we already are.

 

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