Define The Relationship: DTR Work and Income-Style
Everyone, no matter how much they earn, should have the right to choose who they love and live with. But if you're a single parent on income support in Aotearoa, choosing love is often a luxury you can't afford. Find love with a wealthy suitor, and Work and Income will cut your benefit on the assumption that your new beau will take over all your living costs because, you know, Pretty Woman. If there’s no sugar daddy to take on the “burden” that the state is currently shouldering on your behalf (childcare is only an investment when it’s provided privately), your new partner’s income will still be counted as yours, and there goes your support. And if you meet someone just as restricted in their income as you and decide you want to live together, you'll go down to the WINZ couple rate. So, you choose - the money or the love? And if you know the answer to this, please explain how it’s possible to factor what’s best for the kids into that equation?
ACC, IR and Superannuation all have individual entitlements and taxation, but WINZ has been incubating the uncharmingly-retro Single Breadwinner throwback for more than forty years now. Back in 1973, the Domestic Purposes Benefit gave New Zealand women the financial independence they needed to get out of unhealthy relationships - until they remarried and surrendered their independence to the next bloke, that is. It’s a mystery that not one successive wave of feminism has managed to reach WINZ’s distant shores, but it’s time to finally do away with the idea that women and their children (because most single-parent families are headed by women) are the financial responsibility of their new partners. It’s antiquated and restrictive, and it doesn’t put child wellbeing at the centre. Should a single mum’s children lose their financial support if she happens to find someone she wants to build a new life with? And if her new partner can’t sustain the costs of this new family, should they miss out on the chance of becoming one?
Almost every couple I know has different arrangements for their finances But fighting over who pays the bills is a luxury, a fringe benefit of not being disabled, or having children in your care, or being low-waged. For those of us who need support because of circumstances mostly beyond our control (sickness, marriage separation, job loss, an out-of-control rental market) as soon as we’re in a “relationship” (more on that fuzzy definition later), we have no choice but to surrender what little financial independence we have. And if our new partners can’t afford to carry us financially, they’d better keep their distance, because that liaison could land us in jail.
All it takes is a disgruntled ex to make a call to WINZ and an investigation can be launched. I get that it’s important to keep WINZ informed about my financial arrangements; the amount of support I need is relative to what I'm earning and my expenses. My problem with the requirement to divulge my relationship status is that there’s absolutely nothing in my relationship status that defines my income and expenses. My other problem is that it’s hard enough in the age of DTR (that's Define The Relationship, for those of you lucky enough to be ignorant of the nuances of online dating) to define where your relationship is at, without having to fit it into the WINZ definition. When WINZ decides you’re in a “relationship”, they mean “in the nature of marriage” and they figure you’ll know that inside six weeks. MSD's "relationship fraud" investigations have recently been described by the Privacy Commissioner as “intrusive, excessive and inconsistent with legal requirements”. But Viv Rickard, Deputy Chief Executive of Service Delivery at MSD, has explained that relationship fraud investigations are necessary because “95% of the time people didn’t provide the necessary information when we asked them directly.” Well, yeah. You try giving direct answers to subjective questions like “do you give each other emotional support and companionship?”
How about asking something quantifiable instead -something actually relevant to the provision of financial assistance? Maybe: “Without telling us about your romantic life, because it’s irrelevant, inappropriate, and creepy of us to ask, please use this handy online form to detail your income and expenses, including any that are shared.” But even after MSD were told they were breaching people’s privacy with their “relationship fraud” investigations because they weren’t checking with people first, they have continued to assert that they’re allowed to decide case-by-case whether they have to check with suspected fraudsters before going all die-hard ex-cop behind the scenes. I guess privacy is just another luxury that people on assistance aren’t entitled to. MSD’s investigators, like a sad mash-up of low-brow detective drama, Orwell’s Big Brother and the tacky reality TV version of it, have been scouring people’s personal texts for hot messages or pics and using that back-alley evidence and the help of curtain-twitching neighbours to corner people who don't think they're almost-married. You’d think a steamy text could go either way as evidence of a marriage-type relationship, but that murky definition paves the way to prosecution. How did we get to the place where an intimate message, harvested by a government department acting on third-party evidence and presented without an independent judicial officer or a warrant in sight (let alone legal representation) could cost someone hundreds of thousands of dollars, or time behind bars? I’m certainly not condoning fraud - if I was, I’d say go for tax evasion; it’s far more lucrative, the sentencing is lighter and you don’t have to worry about tax people checking your phone for naughty texts - but I do think we have to make the rules fair before we can impoverish kids and incarcerate parents for breaking those rules.
If we’re going to talk about wellbeing (and I think I heard that mentioned in the last budget), we need to put what's best for kids at the heart of our welfare system. We’re punishing people for failing to fit the Single Breadwinner of a Nuclear family model when we should be supporting and the children in their care. I’m a single mum in 2019. I need access to affordable food, housing, health and childcare, and a living wage, not Richard Gere.
The Public Policy Institute (PPI), University of Auckland and CPAG have published a new report entitled "Relationship Status and the Welfare System in Aotearoa-New Zealand" by researchers Olivia Healey and Jennifer Curtin for the Peter McKenzie Project. This report summarised the outdated thinking about the nature of relationships and dependence on a partner, and the application of current rules, which state that to receive a Sole Parent Support benefit, an applicant: 'must not be in a relationship in the nature of marriage'. The authors say that the constitution of the family unit and nature of relationships have changed considerably in the last 60 years, and discuss possibilities for reform of the current rules. Read full report here.