Beneficiaries say system failing to support them into quality jobs

A Victoria University of Wellington survey shows that more than half of beneficiaries felt unhappy while on a benefit, and many feel the welfare system is failing to support them into quality employment.

Alicia Sudden

Research by Development Studies student Alicia Sudden explored the experiences of people who have come off a benefit, either temporarily or permanently, since changes to the welfare system in July 2013.

The 2013 reforms introduced three primary benefits—Jobseeker Support, Sole Parent Support, and Supported Living Payment for sickness, injury or disability—and focused on getting people into employment with new requirements around job seeking.

Ms Sudden carried out surveys and interviews with nearly 250 former and current beneficiaries, and found that only 37 percent of the participants were now employed full-time.

22 percent were employed in part-time, casual or temporary work or were self-employed, 17 percent were studying or training, 21 percent were back on a benefit, and 3.4 percent now had no source of income.

Many of the participants felt the systematic approach of the welfare system made it harder for them to find appropriate employment or up-skill.

“They felt it was incompatible with the complexity and reality of life, and instability in case manager relationships fluctuated their treatment levels,” says Ms Sudden.

“A strong theme that emerged was the need for the system to be more relationship-based with stronger communication, to get a better understanding of individual needs.”

The study also found that the welfare system and the difficulties in finding employment had a negative impact on participants’ wellbeing and self-esteem.

She says 58 percent of those surveyed who are now off a benefit recall feeling unhappy or very unhappy when they had been on a benefit.

“I found that being on a benefit made them feel like they had failed and felt bad about themselves. They were trying to improve their outcomes, have a better life and be employed, but felt they were made to feel bad because they hadn’t succeeded yet.”

On top of financial strains, the findings suggest wellbeing was also strongly affected by social withdrawal and stigma attached to being on a benefit.

“Rather than feeling like they could continue to participate in society, they expressed feelings of deliberate isolation,” says Ms Sudden.

People who had returned to a benefit reported lower happiness and life satisfaction than those in employment or studying—only 35 percent described feeling happy, and 43 percent felt dissatisfied with their lives.

“Employment was in many ways a positive factor in their lives,” says Ms Sudden.

“However, there were also high rates of financial hardship and insecurity that had adverse impacts on wellbeing amongst those who were employed. The kind of jobs they were getting may not be right or make them better off.”

The Master’s research was supervised by Dr Marcela Palamino-Schalscha from Victoria’s School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences.

“The number of participants who volunteered to be interviewed was overwhelming,” says Ms Sudden. “Over half of those who completed the survey wanted to have a face-to-face interview—a huge response. One person even said that they felt that no one else would listen to them.”