Cultivating Tragedy: The Culture of WINZ

The last time I personally required assistance from WINZ was in early 2012. I didn’t know what, if anything, I was eligible for or how they could assist me, mainly I needed information and support. I began by calling the 0800 number and after several attempts at explaining I didn’t really know what I wanted I managed to get an appointment. It wasn’t easy.
When I turned up at the desk the receptionist asked for my forms. Of course I didn’t have any. She was impatient and she was sharp. She asked questions I couldn’t answer. I tried to explain I needed help and advice but apparently, that isn’t their job. I should know all of that from the website. I tried to explain that the information I required was not on the site. She relented and told me to take a seat.
I sat down trying to keep it together. I sat looking at my hands, hoping no one would come in and recognise me or even worse ask why I was there. I wouldn’t be able to answer. What could I say? Everyone else seemed to be making a point of not catching each other’s eye. It was like there was some tacit agreement to show respect by failing to acknowledge our presence. All except one woman who was sitting farthest away from me, with a baby on her knee and a toddler playing on the floor in front of us. When I looked up she looked back at me. It wasn’t quite a smile but she nodded and sat up straighter, squaring her shoulders. She didn’t say a thing but her message was clear. I took a deep breath.
As I waited I was getting more and more anxious. My appointment time had passed three quarters of an hour ago. I was worried about being out of the house for longer than I anticipated. There was no one I could phone. No one knew. When my name was called I jumped.

The woman was officious. She said her name and then asked how she could help. I replied I didn’t know. She sighed. She asked if I had filled in an application. I told her I didn’t know for what. She was becoming slightly agitated and her voice was becoming strident. Finally I managed to say ‘My husband is sick.’
As I said it out loud for the first time, my eyes filled up. I took a deep breath.
The officious lady started to speak at me. She asked if I could still work, I replied I could but I wanted to know if I could get home help. She had no idea. She was only there to advice about benefits. She asked about our income and I told her that we had some money but I wasn’t sure for how long. ‘Why not?’
I couldn’t answer straight away. I looked around the big open room, busy with strangers trying to formulate my next sentence. I asked if there was a private room. I knew there wasn’t. I don’t why I asked except in my head I thought there should be. For times like this, for situations like mine, there should be rooms. I remember even as I thought about the private rooms, I looked over to the woman on my left and saw her wiping her face with her sleeve and I thought ‘I bet she wants a private room as well.’ She had her own tragedy to explain. Every person at every desk did. What made my situation different? Finally I started to speak and at the same time I started to cry.
‘My husband has terminal cancer and I don’t know what to do or who can help. I thought you might know? ’
‘When he dies you will be eligible for a widow’s benefit.’
I left. My Doctor ended up supplying all the information I needed. Then there was Hospice and they were both professional and empathetic. It turns out that Hospice have a WINZ liaison. What a shame the case worker I met didn’t know that.
Now I do some volunteer work as an advocate for beneficiaries. I have seen people treated far worse than I was. My story is nothing. I often hear people in the media, or academics talking about the culture of WINZ. On occasion I even use the phrase but I wonder if people who have not accessed WINZ over the last six years know what this means.
At best the current culture of WINZ involves checking your pride and dignity at the door. It means waiting because your time is of no value and no matter what is happening in your home, or your life, or to your loved ones it is of no consequence because tragedies unfold at WINZ every day.
Kate Davis is completing her B.A English & politics. Previously she has worked for the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective & currently volunteers as an advocate for Auckland Action Against Poverty.
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