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Stigma, drug use and welfare in the time of Covid

MoS aug 2020 stigma drugs and welfare

It’s up to us, the public, to make sure the government looks after our most vulnerable in a recession, writes activist and former Greens MP Sue Bradford.

We live in unsettling times. Perhaps we’ve dodged the worst of Covid-19 thanks to sharp action on the health side of the crisis, but there is no question we’re facing possibly the worst recession – or depression – since the 1930s.

Recessions are not a good time to be unemployed or homeless or a person who uses drugs – or all three at once.

To take one of the most recent examples, in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, the National Government determinedly unrolled a sequence of punitive welfare reforms aimed at cutting costs no matter the consequences for those affected.

Defaulting to austerity budgeting is a typical neoliberal response built on the back of historical prejudice against those who are already society’s most vulnerable. Under austerity, propaganda campaigns are rolled out saying the country can no longer afford welfare at current levels, in effect blaming and consequently punishing unemployed people, beneficiaries, people who use drugs and the sick and disabled for the situation in which they find themselves.

This is exactly what National did following recommendations from its 2011 Welfare Working Group aimed at reducing the number of working-age beneficiaries by 100,000 within 10 years.

One of many punitive reforms was the 2013 introduction of a drug-testing regime, which meant that those who refused to undergo a drug test when required for certain jobs or who failed a drug test would have their benefit reduced partially or completely.

Seven years and a change of government later, this policy is still in force. As recently as August last year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni were still backing the system, despite having opposed it while in Opposition.

In the year to June 2019, beneficiaries were put forward for around 40,000 jobs requiring drug tests. Beyond the comparatively low number of those actually sanctioned, the threat of the drug test lurks as a pervasive psychological threat to all people who use drugs who find themselves inside the welfare system.

Despite the upcoming cannabis referendum and recommendations from the 2018 Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG) to the contrary, 

there is no sign of an easing up on the drug testing of beneficiaries.

Of the many detailed recommendations made by the WEAG, the Labour-led coalition has made only three minor changes, leaving the same punitive welfare structure bequeathed by National substantively in place.

Then Covid-19 arrived. In late May, Finance Minister Grant Robertson announced that people made unemployed because of coronavirus after 1 March will receive weekly payments of $490 per week for 12 weeks. This is great for those who qualify, as $490 per week is almost double what you get on the standard 25+ Jobseeker Support allowance of $250 per week.

The downside has been the deliberate creation of a new two-tier benefit system – one for people made jobless due to Covid and one for the rest. All those already out of work or sole parents or on Jobseeker Support because of sickness or disability are made to feel quite literally worth less than those who qualify for twice as much. The period of this double standard runs through to October.

Although benefits were lifted by $25 per week shortly after Covid hit, welfare levels are still far too low for survival. Queues at foodbanks are lengthening across the country.

Emergency housing has been provided to many of the street homeless because of the pandemic, yet the state housing waiting list has hit a record 18,000. This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of actual homeless numbers, and there is no sign that public housing building rates will catch up with real need any time in the next four years or longer.

The fear or actuality of job loss, income reduction and homelessness creates massive stress. For people who use drugs, recession can be a time of even greater social exclusion. It’s easy to use more when trying to cope with boredom, anxiety, depression and poverty. Even if the drug of choice has become too pricey or is not available, the temptation to shift to another can be strong. 

Access to adequate addiction support and rehabilitation services remains as dicey as ever.

With a general election coming up soon, we should be putting as much pressure as possible on all political parties for major reforms, accelerated by the urgency of the economic impacts of Covid-19. In this area, this is what I reckon we should be campaigning for:

Implementation of the recommendations of the 2018 Welfare Expert Advisory Group, ideally integrated with the implementation of a guaranteed basic income for all. This should be set at a level that is enough to live on and be paid regularly in cash on an individual basis regardless of relationship status. There should be supplementary add-ons for children, old age and disability. Such a system should be well run and non-judgemental and paid for by higher taxes on wealth and profit.

The immediate end to drug-testing sanctions within the welfare system. Work and Income, education providers and employers across all sectors should work together to constructively help current or former drug users to access quality training, education and employment. The use of drug tests and criminal records involving drug use as a blunt instrument of job discrimination should stop now.

A hugely accelerated state, community-based and tangata whenua house-building programme is needed, alongside the introduction of a law making affordable, healthy, secure housing a statutory right for all regardless of health, family and income status.

It is way past time that the needs of some of the most stigmatised and vulnerable groups in our society, who are disproportionately Māori and entangled in a complex web of structural discrimination, were given priority over the demands of big business, property investors and rich white men’s sports.

The time of Covid is an opportunity for transformational change. It is up to us to demand the empathy, courage and common sense required from those who seek our votes in October – and to keep working for it afterwards should they fail, once more, to deliver. 

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