Act urgently - change fundamentally. The time is now.
There’s a line in the Executive Summary of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG) report that sums things up perfectly: “Urgent and fundamental change is needed”. Maybe they should have stamped it on every page, because judging by the Government’s response so far, I don’t think the message quite got through. Their response so far has been paltry, and that has devastating consequences for the children who will continue to suffer material hardship and deprivation. And it’s not right. People have made an urgent call for dignity and social justice. The report is inspiring. It recognises the need to transform the welfare system through applying kaupapa Māori, restoring trust, enabling whakamana tāngata, supporting people to achieve potential, lifting outcomes for Māori and embedding a whole new basis to social security to “ensure a dignified life”. In response, the Government has flatly refused to increase benefit rates and chosen to deliver on these three pre-election promises instead:
- Lift the sanction on single mothers who don’t disclose the name of the child’s father
First (by order of underwhelm), is the removal of this punitive and archaic sanction (like Bridget Jones’ Baby, but at a WINZ office). This a good step, but it can’t be said to be a response to the report’s recommendations when it’s coincidentally the fulfilment of a pre-election promise. The WEAG has called for a reform on sanctions and recommended removing seven of them - it’s not hard to see which one was worth the most political points. Interestingly, Minister Sepuloni said at the release of the report that there’s already been a reduction in sanctions since this government came in. Presumably it’s possible to save some of the $113.4 million it will apparently cost to remove this sanction another way? Those “check your pitchfork at the door” stickers must be working. Sadly, this action isn’t going to help the children whose lives have already been affected by this sanction yet - they still have another year of unjustified increased hardship ahead of them. And it won’t help the families who are suffering the effects of other sanctions needing urgent reform - the ones that result in benefit cancellation or suspension, leaving them vulnerable to unsustainable debt and homelessness.
- “Increasing abatement thresholds” (WINZ-speak for “how much you can keep of what you earn”)
Abatement thresholds are going to be lifted, in line with minimum wage increases, over the next four years. This is another stunningly inadequate response to a call for urgent action. These thresholds haven’t changed in 20 years. When this change comes into effect in April 2020, if you’re getting income support and earning over $80 a week, WINZ will then let you keep $3.50. By 2023, it will be $17.50, which will also be the price of an avocado. Why couldn’t the government immediately lift these thresholds to a meaningful level? If the purpose of WINZ is to get people in to work, surely one of the simplest, most cost-effective methods would be to let people keep more of what they earn? It could provide immediate relief for those families stuck between Working for Families’ minimum work requirements and Work and Income’s maximum earning levels.
- More staff - 263 of them.
This has potential to be transformative - but only if the other recommendations are taken up, too. If the increase in staff enables the Ministry of Social Development to improve outcomes for Māori, helps people access their full entitlements, supports people into sustainable work and affordable housing, and helps to restore their dignity - then yes, this is a good and necessary first step. But I hope they’re not going to perpetuate the problem many single parents or people with health/disability conditions face when looking for work; that is, the lack of flexible, part-time roles. If MSD could offer flexible/job-share/part-time roles, they might create opportunities for the very people they are trying to engage in employment. They would certainly benefit from some hard-won expertise at the same time.
Act urgently - change fundamentally
Through this advisory group, the Government has been given an opportunity to consider the diverse perspectives and voices so often excluded from political decision-making. If this is a democratic process, our government needs to listen - really listen. Then it needs to take that enriched understanding and use it to act on behalf of those people it represents. So far, they’ve made three decisions, and the patronising excuse that they can’t do more because “it’s complex” (we’ve been trying to tell them how complex the lived experience at the interface of the health, justice, welfare and tax systems is for quite some time now). They need to act now. A three-to-five year work plan is a bureaucratic timeframe, but it’s also a critical period of development in the life of a young child.