Lee Suckling: The wage subsidy has changed how I think about welfare
There was a curious difference between the two types of workers that the lockdown presented us with.
On one hand were those able to work from home, who enjoyed the 10-second commute, the slower pace of the workday, Zoom meetings, and freshly-baked sourdough. Then, there were those who were stuck with nothing to do, wondering if they'd ever work again. Riddled with financial security concerns, this was no holiday from Groundhog Day. Instead, it was – and potentially still is – a downright scary time.
But there was one saviour: the wage subsidy - able to provide each full-time employee with a lump sum of just over $7000 to help get them through the tough times ahead.
I'm in the latter group, the one that relied on the wage subsidy to get by. During financial downturns, industries like media, marketing, and communications are always the first casualties alongside retail and hospitality. They're seen as "nice to haves", not essentials. This pandemic proved no exception. My personal workload was reduced by 75 per cent after just a week of lockdown; other peers of mine were employees of the companies that slashed jobs or closed completely.
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New Zealand and Australia are now revered worldwide because of our efforts to contain COVID-19, and both nations deserve equal recognition for preserving the livelihoods (if just for one quarter) of their citizens. My household was saved by the wage subsidy I received. While I still worry about the future of work, I've still been able to pay my half of the bills for now. This gives me a new view on what it means to receive government financial help.
The New Zealand government gave $585 a week for each full-time employee (similarly, it was $750 in Australia). In both countries this is roughly the minimum wage equivalent; it isn't a lot of money, but it's nothing to scoff at.Advertisement Advertise with NZME.
What the wage subsidy represents to people like me is the years (or decades) we have been paying taxes, hoping that if we ever became hard up, our government would have our backs. I genuinely never thought I'd be on any kind of welfare, so this pandemic provided me with confidence in a system actually working. It's the state taking care of those in need.
As a recipient of a form of welfare (and, sidenote, usually a centre-right voter), I've been shown first-hand how important it is to have financial fallbacks for the those who need them. This is a lesson I'll take with me for the rest of my voting and taxpaying life; particularly when it comes to debates with those who lambast "the dole" and call anyone who's not working lazy.
This wage subsidy has given me a unique view on money. In anybody's terms, $7000 is a decent amount of cash to have in the bank. It can go a long way. I look at what Americans got as their coronavirus economic relief – a sad US$1200 cheque with Donald Trump's self-aggrandising signature on it – and it pales in comparison. If you stop all discretionary spending, with $7000 you can pay all your bills and eat a good diet for months. While $1200 (NZD $1965) feels like a cash bonus you'd spend on a big-screen TV, the subsidies on this side of the world actually enable survival.
Life isn't luxurious on minimum wage, but it's manageable. For those of us who are beyond the minimum in terms of earning potential, living on a subsidy can be seen as a welcome wake-up call. It gives real-world experience similar to how so many people in our communities already live.
How does it change you? Here's what it did for me: I wouldn't take the car out because I didn't want to use the petrol (in fact I got through seven weeks of lockdown and only used half a tank). I carefully inspected food prices and went without for many of my usual items. I cut my monthly video streaming, phone, and internet bills because I found better deals to be had. I realised that wine on weeknights was not a necessity. I stopped online shopping and realised I have everything I want and need already. As a bonus, I also learned to cut hair, groom dogs, repair minor housing defects, and mend ripped clothing – all things that I can continue long after "normal" life resumes to reduce spending.
When you're someone on welfare, or only earning the minimum, you know all of this stuff too well. This is your life. For the bourgeoisie like me, the wage subsidy saved my livelihood and completely changed my view on what I used to call "hand-outs". I now realise that a helping hand, even for a short period, can make all the difference when it comes to keeping up an acceptable quality of daily life. Being caught by the social safety net in unexpected times doesn't undermine my sense of personal responsibility – but it does make me better appreciate all the functions of state.