On the caprices of the system

Tulia Thompson has a compelling story about women not being allowed to buy tampons and period pads with a WINZ-provided supermarket card. One women was turned down at the checkout because the supermarket’s system wouldn’t allow tampons to be purchased on the card, and the other was told by her case officer that the card was meant for food and she couldn’t buy tampons.

No Paula Bennett, Tampons and Pads are Not “Luxury Items”: WINZ and Institutionalised Sexism

A close female friend who is a “job seeker” went to WINZ because she had absolutely no money for food. After the usual evidence-providing procedures, her case officer provided her with a supermarket card. But when he gave it to her he carefully explained that the supermarket card was for “necessity items only”, and she could not use it for various “luxury items” including tampons and pads.

That’s disturbing. “… when HE gave it to her HE carefully explained….”

There’s someone who simply doesn’t want to understand that tampons and period pads are not a luxury, and unless you think that women ought to revert to using old rags and washing them in secret at night, then they are not a choice either. They are straightforwardly a necessity.

But I’m wondering what lies behind the careful scrutiny of WINZ officers. People working in the emergency caring area, such as Women’s Refuge and other similar organisations, tell me that WINZ is tough these days. The case officers are pressured, and and the underlying ethos is all about getting people out of WINZ. Emergency grants are given grudgingly, as though they are coming from the case officer’s own back pocket. It’s not about helping people to get through a rough patch anymore: it’s all about turning them into productive members widgets of society.

This is not just a problem with the case officer (although there is clearly a problem with a male case officer who doesn’t recognise that women need tampons and period pads). It’s a problem with the system that the case officer is operating within.

As for the woman who was turned down out the checkout, rather than lectured by her case officer – it seems clear from the comments on Tulia Thompson’s post that the problem may have been due to the way the supermarket coded its product. But that wouldn’t have mattered a jot to the woman who had to return tampons to the shelf. From her point of view, she would simply have been turned down by the system, much as the first woman was.

And there’s the problem. The system, for whatever reason, has capriciously denied these women access to basic necessities. It has done so despite the clear commitment of our social welfare system to help people who need it. Now these women, and others like them, will have lost confidence that there is help there for them if necessary. It’s one more blow to their sense of security, one more blow to their self-esteem, one more confirmation that they are not wanted in our society. They have been made to feel even more vulnerable, and even more disenfranchised.

It’s not just a matter of fixing the case officer’s understanding of what can be bought with emergency benefit money, or fixing the coding or products at the supermarket. Of course, those problems do need to be fixed. But they are symptoms of a broader problem within WINZ.

We need the Minister of Social Welfare to change her approach, and the approach of her department. Instead of seeing people who come through WINZ’s doors as bludgers who need to be policed and chivied back to work and respectability, they need to be seen as our fellow citizens, part of our community and our society, as people who just need a hand to get going again. WINZ’s job is to help them, and us. In setting out to help people, instead of setting out to keep expenditure as low as possible, WINZ would create real security for all of us, because we would know that we would be safe from the capricious interference of ill-informed clerks and uncaring computer systems. And those clerks and case managers at WINZ would be able to respond to the real needs of the people who come to see them, without fear of being rebuked for not meeting targets and goals.

I’ve written about social welfare and security before: People who need a benefit should get it.

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