Children suffer from outdated ideas on relationships in the welfare system

New Zealand's social security framework is based on outdated ideas of the nature of relationships and too often fails to protect the needs of children in the 21st century, says Child Poverty Action Group in a new report launched today. 

Download the report here: The complexities of "relationship" in the welfare system and the consequences for children

A CPAG report released today argues that the use of a 'couple' as the unit for determining welfare support is confusing and outdated, and can have serious harmful effects on children.  The report has been written to raise awareness of these disturbing issues and to start a national conversation around making the welfare system fit for the 21st century.    

Download the report here: The complexities of "relationship" in the welfare system and the consequences for children. 

Economics spokesperson Associate Professor Susan St John says, "We should be wrapping all the support we can around sole parents caring for children on their own.  We know that a sole parent re-partnering well can be a good thing for all concerned.  Current policy gives the impression that attempts to do this must be punished. Any relationships, even very unsatisfactory ones that hurt children, mean sole parents can lose their independent source of income." 

There are major inconsistencies in the use of relationship in the welfare system.  It is difficult to justify a policy that pays less to a couple than to two individuals who share accommodation and costs. A sole mother who flats with another person may be in a very similar financial situation to one who is living with someone, male or female, in a 'relationship'. 

The report finds that tests for the degree of financial interdependence and emotional commitment, needed for the relationship to be treated as 'in the nature of marriage', are subjective and inconsistent. There is often a degree of surveillance that is far from open and transparent.  Moreover the appeal processes for anyone accused of being in a relationship are very unsatisfactory. A sole parent may even be given a prison sentence with scant regard to the impact on her children.

Susan St John says, "it is worrying to see how often sole mothers face both imprisonment and a lifetime of repayments." 

 "Children and their needs do not feature adequately in the design of welfare benefits, or in the way policy is implemented around them, including the pursuit of their parent accused of relationship fraud.  We believe there is NO benefit in imprisoning sole parents or setting excessive financial penalties from a punitive or deterrent point of view, especially once the cost and the impact on children is considered," says St John. 

CPAG deplores fraud such as using multiple names to access benefits, or deliberately accessing a benefit while in full-time work.  But in cases described as 'relationship fraud' the issues are far from clear cut and suggest that a complete overhaul in policy is required. One of the first steps is to put all standard welfare benefits on an individual basis so that having a partner is not penalised. 

Child Poverty Action Group is grateful to the The Hostel of the Holy Name Trust for their support for this project.