By Tom Baker

In the Depression era, it was common enough to see people queuing in the "bread line" for life's essentials. It was a tangible sign that systems of state welfare needed strengthening. Today, we are seeing a different type of bread line.

Every Friday morning, outside the Clendon offices of Work and Income in South Auckland, you will see people queuing up long before the 8.30am opening time.

They are queuing in the hope that they will be one of 65 people assisted by a specialist "beneficiary advocate" from Auckland Action Against Poverty, a largely volunteer-based non-government organisation.

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It is normal for the 65-person quota to be filled by 8.30am. People arrive early, often travelling considerable distances.

In a recently published research article, Courtney Davis and I investigated why people use specialist advocacy services to help them claim basic benefits. We found three main reasons.

First, benefits buy much less than they did in the past. Despite a small increase in the benefit amount under National, governments have let the real value of benefits erode over several decades. As a result, people are in more desperate financial situations.

Emergency benefits, like short-term food grants, have become crucial for many households. When not receiving an emergency food grant risks the health and wellbeing of members of your household, it is not hard to understand the logic behind "bringing in the experts".

Second, the process of claiming benefits has become much more complicated.

The misguided belief that the welfare system encourages an individually and socially damaging form of "dependency" has served to justify an increasingly complex array of conditions designed to limit a person's ability to claim benefits.

These conditions would confuse your average contract lawyer, let alone your average citizen.

It's not surprising that beneficiaries feel the need to engage the services of someone with specialist training in the Social Security Act and experience in navigating complex Work and Income protocols.

Third, the process of awarding benefits has become more opaque to beneficiaries.

In years gone by, eligibility for particular benefits was fairly cut and dried. If you met straight-forward criteria, you received the benefit. Today, there is much more authority delegated to front-line Work and Income staff.

Work and Income staff have responsibilities similar to those of a judge. They are charged with interpreting how to apply an extensive set of rules and regulations. Beneficiary advocates are a form of legal counsel in this court-like environment, helping beneficiaries to "make their best case".

These trends show that the welfare system has become increasingly degrading and bewildering for those claiming benefits. Last week it emerged that $200 million in benefits remain unclaimed each year, largely because beneficiaries are unaware of their entitlements and what is required to claim them.

Needing an expert to help people access life's essentials is a sign of how dysfunctional New Zealand's welfare system has become.

Given that there's no economic or social benefit to making the lives of people on benefits stressful, confusing and demoralising, would a user-friendly welfare system be too much to ask?

• Dr Tom Baker is a geographer and public policy researcher at the University of Auckland.