On a public bus recently I met an extraordinary woman. I was discussing with my travelling companion the large and growing number of people reliant on welfare. The government encourages it, I said, it’s disgraceful and wrong, also unsustainable and a terrible way for people to live. Actually, this may be a slight exaggeration of the conversation, it could have been a monologue on my part, perhaps even a diatribe.

The woman sitting across the aisle from me reached over and tapped my arm. “Excuse me,” she said, “I overheard you and thought you might like to know there are people who refuse to take welfare.”

She said she is one of them, so I asked her why. It’s the stigma, she said, the negative way people perceive beneficiaries. Yep, this was a good cop, she’d just heard me whining about beneficiaries who take, take, take as much as they can for as long as they can. Generations, in fact.

When she first became unemployed she went to WINZ to apply for assistance and was met at the door by an armed security guard. She fleetingly wondered why security was needed, lost her nerve and left. After the event she reconsidered, asking herself was this really how she wanted to live? Reliant on welfare?

This woman appeared to be in her forties, attractive and simply dressed. She sat on the bus clasping a plastic pot of basil on her lap. A gift perhaps? I wondered was she the recipient or the giver? The keen gardener in me commented on the plant’s unusual legginess and she smiled and said she was not a good gardener. I deduced it was a gift for someone else.

I was intrigued. She hadn’t worked for two years and said she earned only $200 in the last year and wondered how she could pay tax on the income. She may have been struggling with the thought of fronting up to the local tax department with $21 cash to pay. In the world we live in today, they would certainly think her crazy and may even refuse to take the money. I could have told her not to worry about trying to pay the tax but I didn’t. She was clearly a woman of principle.

I asked how long since she’d been employed. Two years. How many jobs had she applied for in that time? Around 70. She appeared eminently employable to me, looked fit and was very well-spoken, but with no income and no government assistance how on earth was she surviving in Auckland?

This question drew a smile on her already glowing face. She said she does voluntary work where needed, including at her local church, and regularly receives gifts of support from people aware of her situation.

Despite this apparently hand to mouth existence, this woman exuded contentment. She said she was happy. She also said she did not want to be a beneficiary because mentally it would cripple her. I think she has a point. But she is an unusually courageous person, it takes principle and considerable nerve to turn down free money.

But I know exactly what she means. Taking as much as we can whenever we can is juvenile and growth stunting. It weakens us and quite possibly upsets our mental health. The opposite is also true, that when we give more than we expect to receive, society works much, much better. In a perfect world, no one starves to death without welfare.

Imagine life without welfare. In whatever fashion or capacity, people contributing what they can, where they can, when they can. Giving without expecting something back is liberating but only possible with a completely selfless attitude.

In a perfect world the absence of greed means enough for everyone. It is, of course, completely unrealistic because we live in a very imperfect world where it is encouraged, almost mandatory, to take more than we give. But in the absence of greed, we’d do well to remember that there’d be no need for welfare.

Metiria Turei volunteered her own beneficiary fraud in a misguided attempt to remove “beneficiary shaming”. She got that completely wrong. Her perverse attitude completely blinded her to the fact that the stigma, shame, or guilt, call it what you will, originates in the beneficiary and does not go away simply because others stop pointing the finger.

Many of us have the reassurance of sufficient money to house ourselves, buy food and pay the bills. This extraordinary woman and others like her – she says there are many more – have taken a courageous stance many of us will never have to take.

These people bring a ray of sunshine and hope into a world often devoid of it. I left the bus feeling touched by a very special woman of principle. 


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