There are as many security guards as staff at my local Work and Income office. As I enter, I am asked for ID and checked against the list of people allowed in that day. I wait on a row of chairs. A woman is coughing and sneezing. Other customers are annoyed by this; they think she should not be there as she is clearly ill. A staff member comes to see her and tells her she cannot have money that day. She is angry and waves her arms around, and leaves. Already today the office has been locked down because of someone's violence. It leaves the staff edgy.
A screen plays videos on a loop. They advise me of the importance of being drug free, and they tell me motivating stories about how I might be able to find a job if I have the right education. They warn me that my child must be vaccinated for me to gain financial assistance. Kind looking people tell us that having a job will be good for us.
Already I have been to the seminar on registering. We were told all about Obligation Failures. If you don't come to your appointment, that is an Obligation Failure. If you don't come, that lets the whole side down. Only hospitalisation should dissuade you from your appointments. If your voicemail message is not positive and friendly, that is an Obligation Failure. If you cannot show that you are spending 30 hours a week job hunting, that is an Obligation Failure. If you fail a drug test, that is certainly an Obligation Failure. The penalty for Obligation Failures is that your financial assistance is docked by 50% until you do what they want you to do. If you persist with your Obligation Failure, you lose financial assistance altogether. Of course there are many Obligation Failures than I have mentioned here, and the system is slightly more labyrinthine regarding drug testing, but I have given a range of them with the aim of showing the tone of the Work and Income experience. We are also told about how small the amount of financial assistance is that we may actually get, and shown figures that are only slightly distorted, to prove this. Employment is so much better. Much, much better. You don't want to be on financial assistance. You can't live on it, don't think for a moment your life will be easy.
Work and Income is currently being restructured and the woman who delivers the seminar is clearly jittery. She even talks about how she may lose her job. Her jitters do not give her empathy. I'm not your PA, she says. I will contact your previous employer, but that is the last thing I will do for you.
So here I am two days post seminar. I am waiting to see this same woman. As I sit in front of her, she expresses disbelief at my situation, which is undeniably complicated. She tells me I may not be eligible for financial assistance; there may in fact be a further 13 week stand down.
Now, I used to have a little dog called Tigger. I would talk to him often, like this: Now Tigger, you know not to eat the cat food, you are a naughty Tigger, you need to be a good Tigger. And Tigger, being a dog with a vocab of about 15 human words, would hear this: Blah Tigger blah blah blah Tigger blah blah Tigger.....
In front of the Work and Income woman, I am reduced to a working vocabulary of 15 words. I hear no money, thirteen weeks stand down. Oh sure, there are other things. Like, I have appointments to see someone at another office in another town, and I have a seminar to attend on how to write a CV and another one on how to go to a job interview. And much of the information I carefully and expensively have gathered for her is actually not required. But my hippocampus has shut down. All I am is hard wired freaked out amygdaloid system. No money thirteen weeks. No money. Thirteen weeks. No money. Shit. Shit shit shitshitshit...........
I am trying not to cry. I shift in my seat, I stand up and sit down and even windmill a little. No way am I going to cry. I am crying anyway. I rummage through my bag and pockets. I can't find a tissue. Things spill out and I am too disorganised in my head to put them back in properly. Hell, I am actually whimpering. If I was young, male and Maori the security guards would be around me by now, as I am plainly 'agitated'. The woman avoids eye contact and enters my data. I suppose this happens to her several times a day. What might she be thinking? Best just to box on, really, if you buy into it they just get more upset and then there's no end to it, keep your own head above water, it's all you can do. Too wretched even to say thank you (for what?) I leave when she's finished and sit in the car and sob.
So, hey, I have been a part of the precariat for some time now, living partly off grid. Now I have a system interested in the minutiae of my life. They also expect me to be wired for them for life. Everything is done online and a taxing degree of computer literacy is required. For those without such skills and without internet, which is often poorer people over 45, people who have been in institutions a lot, or the homeless, Work and Income must be an impossible place. They have no free wi fi for example; I have to pay for data to show the staff the information they require. Note: they require. I am only paying for data because they need it, and therefore so do I. They require in my case travel between towns to attend two offices. And for me to own a printer to see evidence of job hunting. And a positive attitude. They tell me I will go a long way with a positive attitude. Perhaps I will try it some time.
I am lucky I am not a real beneficiary. I am only a gentlewoman in reduced circumstances. I don't rage and flip desks and demand attention. I delay gratification in a genteel if slightly shabby fashion. My phone still works. There is money on my bus card for travel. I still have good work clothes, which they tell me I must wear in case they send me to a job Right Now (sure, honey). I even own a car, which they have not required me to sell even though I can no longer really afford to run the damn thing. I do not have a disability or a mental illness or a background that makes understanding the world around me difficult and traumatising. I can read and write and 'give a good account of myself', as they say. I am lucky. I really am.