After eight years of absence from the labor market, Dagmar Niewold (41) from Amersfoort established himself at the beginning of this year as an independent consultant. Specialized in the relationship between poverty, stress, health and domestic violence, she advises governments in drawing up policy plans and their approach to combating poverty. She teaches students and healthcare workers how to deal effectively with people who live with chronic stress.
She does not touch the money Niewold earns with it. “I’m afraid I’ll have to pay everything back. I have been waiting for months for a message from the UWV and the Tax and Customs Administration about how they will settle my income with my WIA benefit and various allowances.”
This lack of clarity stresses her out. And because of chronic stress, many people end up and remain in poverty. Niewold speaks from experience. She has been living with her two children on just under 1,000 euros a month for years.
This makes her one of the 220,000 working poor in the Netherlands. This figure comes from the exploration Working without Poverty, recently published by the Social and Economic Council, on the eve of World Poverty Day, 17 October.
Until 2013, Dagmar Niewold had it all together: husband, family, a paid training position as an anesthetist assistant in a university medical center and a few vacations a year. Then she left her husband and lost her house, car and other securities.
The divorce was accompanied by lawsuits, and that process took eight years. She became seriously ill, making her partially incapacitated for work. The UWV and her former employer had a legal battle over the percentage for which she was rejected. She could not afford a Sinterklaas gift or school camp for her children and had to knock on the door of the Food Bank.
It was then that she became convinced that the word loser was printed on her forehead. “Armen, that is a group you absolutely do not want to belong to. Before that, I thought that everything is so well organized in the Netherlands that someone who has to go to the Food Bank must have made it himself. I did everything I could to hide the fact that I was no longer financially able, and made excuses to cancel birthdays without showing that there was no money for gifts. Above all, I didn’t want to fail my two children – but they fell short.
“The discovery that I was entitled to contributions from the Leergeld foundation for their education and from the Youth Sports Fund for sports lessons did not reduce my stress. Because a school camp costs more than just accommodation; This includes a packing list of things, pocket money and a mobile phone per child. In order not to have to sell the children no, I shifted with payments. Keeping track of the administration and pretending that everything is going well after all, that takes a lot of energy.”
Prey to despair, she came to the municipality for social assistance. Because she was ill, she was not entitled to that, the client manager said. He saw her need, but arranging financial compensation would take at least eight weeks. And she didn’t have that time. She was broke – and on.
We need to identify much earlier which deviant behavior indicates chronic stress
The client manager was looking for a way to circumvent the rules and still grant her municipal assistance immediately. As soon as the procedure for the UWV benefit to which she was entitled was completed, she was able to repay that assistance properly.
Niewold: “When I left his room, I had the feeling that I had won the lottery. The customization that this man delivered has been essential. He made the difference between being able to pay rent and health insurance premiums or not; get by on a minimum or run into debt. He saw me as a human being and behaved like a human being – not an agency.”
Pay with privacy
Niewold was also emotionally grounded at that time. She went to therapy and encountered childhood trauma that had its origin in domestic violence and abuse. Her later partner relationships were also unsafe. “I had to relearn how to experience basic emotions like fear, anger, joy and sadness. While reading the book The body keeps the score van Bessel van der Kolk, one of the greatest trauma experts in the world, I experienced an aha moment on every page. I recognized all the symptoms associated with chronic stress and PTSD: no longer being able to regulate your emotions, being unable to oversee anything, losing your gut feeling, so that you cannot protect yourself.”
As she learned to understand the stress pattern, she came to see that she was not failing. Meanwhile, letters from agencies and lawyers kept coming in, fueling her stress. “I discovered that when you are in a stressful situation and your capacity is very limited, you are asked way too much. Just when you want to be lifted, need an arm around your shoulders, you have to comply with endless rules, fill in forms everywhere and fit into protocols. Organizing reimbursement for medical care alone via a referral, a diagnosis, a treatment plan and the approval of a health insurer is a hassle. You need permission for everything. You pay with your privacy, because you must submit account statements with every request for financial resources. You will also be judged on the choices you make. Surely you didn’t need a Netflix account? Well, if your child can never go to the cinema with friends, watching a movie at home is the least and cheapest alternative. It would make a difference if care providers continue to ask questions about the motivation behind spending.”
Graduating on chronic stress
As the sense of personal failure diminished, the experience of injustice increased. It motivated Niewold to follow the vocational training ‘experiential poverty and social exclusion’. She graduated cum laude with her graduation thesis When your brain leaves you no choice. She based this on literature and experiential research into the relationship between trauma, poverty and chronic stress.
“We need to identify much earlier which deviant behavior indicates chronic stress,” says Niewold. “We must support parents and children who get into trouble due to stress – not overload them with more and more conditions. You can recognize busy behavior in children or avoidant behavior in adults. The teacher, civil servant or social worker who tells you what to pay attention to, can more easily identify the problems in a child or family.”
A part of the brain is switched off or less accessible when someone is overloaded by chronic stress, Niewold knows. “Exactly the part of the brain that allows us to plan and reflect. To regulate emotions, make well-considered choices, act purposefully and problem-solving. To resist temptations, and – not unimportantly – to use language and think abstractly.”
The fact that those functions don’t work when you have to comply with the protocols and rules of our system is crippling, she says. “Within aid and services there is a tendency to lose sight of humanity. Thinking in boxes and strictly following the policy seems clear, but it leads to expectations that people in such a stressful situation are completely unable to live up to.”
If someone doesn’t show up for an appointment – with the debt counselor, the company doctor, a civil servant – it quickly becomes: ‘so he doesn’t want to cooperate.’ But it is not unwillingness, Niewold emphasizes. “When you know that person cannot cooperate – like a deer staring into the headlights in terror – your attitude towards that person is very different. That would help enormously.”
Accelerate, brake it
While Niewold builds up her working life, the unrest continues in private. As long as she does not know how her income from work is set off against benefits and allowances, poverty will stare at her. “I neatly reported to the UWV that I was going to work. Another requirement that undermines your sense of autonomy, emphasizes your dependence on authorities and fuels your sense of guilt. In February I was not yet able to estimate how many assignments I would receive and what I would earn. I could not lower my benefit myself, because otherwise I might not be able to pay my fixed costs. So I took the risk of going to work before I knew how the calculation would turn out. I don’t want to be led by fear anymore. But despite filed quarterly returns, I still don’t have a definitive answer from the tax authorities. In this way, the step to work feels like a punishment.”
Until this year, Niewold regularly had to eat from the Food Bank. By order of a judge, she now receives 90 euros a month for her youngest son. Added to her benefit, she almost achieves the poverty line that Statistics Netherlands uses – for a single person.
Her oldest turned 18 this summer, officially an adult, which also caused financial insecurity. “When you open every letter from authorities with trembling heart for years, that fear really does not disappear in a few months. It feels like accelerating with the brake on. Because I still have no idea if I’m moving forward or backward, I can’t enjoy the work that I find so meaningful.”
She now needs time to shape her new source of income, she says. “I would have been helped with three years, the time a start-up needs to start making a profit.”
Her case is like that of more benefit recipients who would like to work, but for those who feel safer ‘staying in’ on benefits. Their income may be low, but also certain, Niewold knows. “If I could build a financial buffer without a sword of Damocles over my head, work would be rewarding and rewarding.”
‘Because of the uncertainty, the step to work feels like a punishment’
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