Antiquated welfare system needs a reality check

New Zealand has a welfare system perfectly designed for the problems of the 1970s. That's one of the realities that Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) is drawing attention to with its Fix Working for Families (FWFF) campaign.

Take the requirement, for example, that sole parent families get an extra $72.50 of support each week only if they do at least 20 hours of work. That might just about have been tenable, if still unfair, in an era of steady jobs and regular hours. But it is untenable in an era when many people’s hours of work vary from week to week, according to their employers' desires.

If a sole parent gets 30 hours of work one week and 10 hours the next, they only get the $72.50 in the first week, even though the needs of their child have not changed in that time. They can't even average their hours over the two weeks. The resulting loss of income can throw their life into chaos and further damages their children's prospects.

Our benefit system is outdated in all sorts of ways. Often, if you have been overpaid or underpaid by Work and Income and Inland Revenue (IRD), they won't settle up with you until the end of the year, resulting in either the holding-back of much-needed income for many months or unexpected demands to repay large sums all at once.

These problems are only going to get greater, as work becomes more and more precarious and society more and more fluid. We are moving into an era when jobs may – it is argued by some – become increasingly scarce as people are replaced by robots. People's personal relationships are also becoming more fluid and looking less and less like the traditional long-term model of marriage.

Yet the benefit system is still obsessed with dividing people into those who are working and those who are not; it also spends a lot of time snooping on beneficiaries' private lives, trying to peek into their homes to determine whether or not they are living in a 'permanent' relationship with someone.

What we need is a benefit system that is more generous, more universal, less demeaning and cheaper to administer. Unless we take steps in that direction, the support our Government offers the most vulnerable is going to get more and more out of step with the reality of their lives.

CPAG has started a campaign to Fix Working for Families. Find out about its goals and how you can help here

Max Rashbrooke is an award-winning international journalist, author and editor who has worked extensively on the topic of inequality. He has written for The Guardian, as well as New Zealand media such as Metro, NBR and NZ Herald. In 2014 he published The Inequality Debate: an Introduction (BWB, 2014) a short guide to income inequality in New Zealand. Max is also an associate at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, in the School of Government at Victoria University, Wellington.