What Tampons Taught Us about Poverty and Gatekeepers, or My Questions for Paula Bennett

Last week I blogged about how my friend was told by her WINZ case-worker she couldn’t buy tampons with her hardship grant. What followed was a social media sandstorm, due in part to the twitter hashtag # unnecessary tampons. The post received 32,977 views, and over 90 comments. Public interest was further fueled by Paula Bennett tweeting to clarify that there was no ban on women’s sanitary items, and responding to journalists that you can’t believe everything you read on social media. That’s very true Paula, you have to be discerning.

The emerging picture seemed to indicate that case managers may not always correctly advise beneficiaries, who are left in fairly vulnerable positions.  Several comments and facebook messages alerted me to similar experiences of beneficiaries being treated with disrespect or disdain. This ill-treatment occurs alongside continuously not being given enough assistance and struggling for basic necessities. As Jan Logie’s blogpost pointed out,  misinformation from WINZ staff about policy occurs in a context of punitive policy changes and an organisational culture that is stigmatising.

Auckland Action Against Poverty is a direct action and education organisation that
both advocates for beneficiaries and protests against the neoliberal agenda on jobs, welfare and poverty.

Sarah Thompson, a spokesperson from Auckland Action Against Poverty, explained that
they are seeing an ever emerging gatekeeper culture in Work and Income, where people
are often told “no” as a first response from W&I staff. “At least 9 out of the 10 people that
our advocates work with have been incorrectly or unfairly denied assistance – from being misinformed, as in your friends case, about using a special needs grant for tampons to being denied a benefit altogether when W&I incorrectly assume someone is living in the nature of marriage, to not applying discretion in the case where a mother needs additional assistance for food”. These conditions make it near impossible for people to receive the assistance they are entitled to.

The most damning indictment on the relationship between sanitary items and unacceptable level of poverty in New Zealand for me last week was from the Child Poverty Action Group who facebooked that child well-being organisation KidsCan are supplying pads to intermediate and high school girls as they or their families can’t afford them. CPAG quoted Jules from KidsCan:

“We have many sad stories of girls getting bladder infections as they are reusing soiled sanitary items or toilet paper. This is a major issue in some of our schools which most people be would not be aware of. We recently had 1000 packs of pads donated to us for this purpose.”

Paula Bennett tweeting about tampons was a curious event. If you are media savvy you
know that politics often about send the right message to the right audience. It’s obviously a tricky one for Paula, because on one hand she wants to appeal to voters. Paula is walking a fine line though. As the Minister for Social Development, Paula Bennett has a more direct obligation to beneficiaries to ensure that New Zealand’s welfare system has integrity.

So Paula Bennett, a week on from tampongate, here are the questions I really have to ask:

  • What were the communications costs (branding, design and publications) associated with essentially “rebranding” seven benefit categories as three categories? Are the changes primarily cosmetic? Are the changes meant to assist beneficiaries or assuage voters?
  • What are you doing to actively prevent misinformation and bullying that could occur in WINZ offices as an effect of the “gatekeeping” organisational culture?
  • How does the basic benefit rate relate to average food and housing costs? How are beneficiaries expected to meet the shortfall between the benefit rate and their weekly costs?
  • With this in mind, what do you think is an acceptable level of hardship? What every day items should beneficiaries be prepared to go without?

 Auckland Action Against Poverty are going to be holding an impact action outside Work and Income in New Lynn from the 10th – 12th September, from 9am to 4.30pm each day. Beneficiaries are able to meet with advocates to assist them in getting their full entitlements. For more information, see www.aaap.org.nz or email contact@aaap.org.nz


5 thoughts on “What Tampons Taught Us about Poverty and Gatekeepers, or My Questions for Paula Bennett

  1. Thank you for asking these questions. They are entirely relevant to myself and alot of New Zealanders. I find myself continually having to reassure whomever I see at Winz ,to not get upset or so defensive whenever I ask questions that most citizens take for granted such as why is my benefit not static why is the amount I get paid into my account different from week to week, and what is that $1200 that appeared on my Weekly Benefit Breakdown that you are deducting $5 per week out of my allocated benefit for? I know its not an advance & please dont take this personally as I understand you have a difficult job.but surely you can give me an answer? I am finding many people living in similar situations as I am and we are the lucky ones many women are too intimidated to apply for any assistance and I feel like a non citizen??? what must they feel like? Hungry, Tired, In Valid, Lazy – many turn to drugs and end up in prison its a vicious circle.

  2. Now i am a Male so please apologize if i get this wrong or offend anyone, the reason why Tampons are now luxury item are that men don’t need, so women don’t need (yeah right), all women on the Benefit were meant to get there reproductive system frozen with long term contraception methods, and for that, tampons are now a luxury item, because woman now don’t need them,
    Now in reality land, as a male, from what i been told, some of the long term contraception option can be damaging for the reproductive system and i wouldn’t recommend any woman to take it on the chance that a WINZ case manager tells them they have to do it or we won’t pay the benefit and making tampons luxury to make this happen is disgusting idea that should be exterminated along with these informal policies
    Thank you for listening

    1. Even if a woman wanted to go onto long term contraceptives, that costs money. I don’t expect that winz would pay for it. In fairness I haven’t asked them…. I go without healthcare almost completely to avoid letting winz know about my medical needs.

  3. I wish more people knew about how fantastic mooncups are! Mooncups are re-usable silicon menstrual cups that are more effective and cost effective than tampons. Cost: about $50 – and you can keep using it for TEN years. Mooncups should be made available to all young girls, and subsidised for women on low incomes! Saves money and the environment. 🙂

    1. thanks Carolyn, I agree that they are a fantastic alternative for women and the environment. Unfortunately, people on benefits most often just don’t have the money to be able to pay the higher upfront costs of an option that will save money over time (and be environmentally-friendly). For instance, say your benefit is around $250 per week. After paying $150 rent, you have $100 for bills, food and bus travel. That doesn’t leave any room for doctor visits, or any unexpected costs, let alone $50 on a mooncup.

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