Beneficiaries to PM: the welfare system needs to urgently change - start tomorrow by ending harmful relationship rules

If we want New Zealand to be the best place in the world to be a child, the Government needs to increase benefits, remove sanctions, individualise benefits, and fix abatement rates now, says Child Poverty Action Group and ActionStation

The two organisations held a joint press conference in Auckland this morning, where Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) released a briefing paper to the Government calling for urgent action on the earlier released Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s report. The briefing was followed by the delivery of an ActionStation petition to Prime Minister Ardern’s electoral office, asking for these welfare changes.

“The Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s report Whakamana Tāngata provides a useful roadmap for the Government to follow to fix our broken welfare system so that every family, child and individual is freed from the constraints of poverty,” says CPAG executive officer Georgie Craw. 

Craw said at the briefing that while she understands some of changes may need weeks or months to implement, if this government is serious about addressing poverty in Aotearoa, tomorrow they would: 

  1. Change the definition of a ‘relationship in the nature of marriage’ from 6 weeks to 3 years.
  2. Stop investigations into the private lives of those receiving income support.
  3. Because people are doing it really hard, this government should keep the winter energy payment for all low-income families receiving a benefit, until incomes are adequate to meet all basic needs. 
  4. Immediately change the abatement rates to take away the barriers preventing people moving in to work.

“The Families Package was a welcome catch-up for years of improper indexation, and we acknowledge other newly implemented actions,” adds Craw. “But families on benefits have not seen the relief that they need. Punitive treatment and attitudes towards parents on benefits, in particular sole parents, continues. The Welfare Expert Advisory Group report highlighted the need to change this and we are calling on the Government to follow through immediately.”

This call for urgent action is echoed by sole mothers Renee Manella, Kafa Mamaia and Hannah McGowan, as well as beneficiary advocate Fred Andrews, all of whom spoke at the briefing about their experiences of the stress of navigating life and parenthood while on welfare.

“I tried living with someone a few years ago and I was forced to enter the workforce because his full-time minimum wage income couldn’t support us,” says McGowan. “Trying to juggle a household, pre-teens, increasingly poor health and unsuitable jobs resulted in me having a nervous breakdown. The stress split us up.” 

CPAG says that healthy, loving relationships are a vital part of life, and should be supported and encouraged by the Government. They should remove rules that disincentive relationships through penalising couples where one or both individuals receive a benefit. 

“The Government needs to remove what they call sanctions for people receiving income support. Sanctions are what prevent people like me from being able to enter into loving and secure relationships,” adds McGowan.

Following the media briefing, staff and supporters of CPAG and ActionStation walked with McGowan, Mamaia, Manella and Andrews down the road to PM Ardern’s electoral office to deliver the petition, signed by almost 8000 people. 

“Thousands of New Zealanders, from different backgrounds who want to see the welfare system transformed so everyone in this country can have what they need to live with dignity, have signed this petition,” says ActionStation economic fairness spokesperson Ruby Powell. 

Other key recommendations made by CPAG and supported by ActionStation include extending the In-Work Tax Credit to all families on benefits, and removing the discriminatory paid hours criteria, removing all sanctions and obligations, and requiring Work and Income to ensure all applicants receive all the assistance to which they are entitled.

Outside the Prime Minister’s electoral office, Manella called on the Government to respond to the asks: “We call on those in power - including acting Prime Minister Winston Peters - to take urgent action to increase benefit rates, remove the punitive and harmful sanctions and obligations - and to stop punishing people on income support for finding love,” says Manella. 

“All kids in Aotearoa should be free to just get on with being kids,” Manella earlier said at the briefing, “if the Government puts in place all of CPAG’s priority recommendations from the WEAG’s report we can make kids and their families healthier, happier, and more active in our communities.”  

Photo credit: Serena Giovanna Stevenson