It's time for the punitive, stigmatising nature of welfare to change
Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) welcomes the Privacy Commissioner inquiry into the Ministry of Social Development’s (MSD) investigative practices and joins the AAAP’s call for the department to end cruel and invasive practices that can have devastating impacts on children.
“In particular, the watchdog approach that MSD encourages of the public fosters a culture of mistrust and discrimination against beneficiaries, especially sole parents who attempt to repartner,” says CPAG spokesperson Jeni Cartwright.
“It is not helpful to any parent who is already experiencing the stress of being stigmatised for their circumstances, meanwhile trying to feed a family on a lower than adequate income, to have the added anxiety of wondering if their neighbour or ex might dob them in for spending time with another adult.”
Investigations of possible relationship or benefit fraud may lead to prosecutions that have lifelong impacts for low-income people and their children, and crippling debt.
“Our systems have contributed towards a damaging culture of punishing those who most need help. Critical changes are needed so that we are pulling people up, not pushing them down.”
Kathryn’s Story, published in 2016 by CPAG, tells of a mother who was prosecuted for benefit fraud after being dobbed in by a former partner. Angered by accusations of abuse, the man contacted Work and Income to say that Kathryn, who was recovering from horrific trauma, had received a benefit to which she was not entitled. Kathryn has maintained she was no longer in a relationship with him during the period in question and therefore was entitled to her benefit. However Kathryn was convicted of benefit fraud, imprisoned for 6 months in 2001, and her four children were put into foster care. Kathryn’s children were subjected to mistreatment during this period and the impacts will remain with them for life. Now plagued by ill-health and on the supported living benefit, despite a 17-year battle in the courts after her prison term Kathryn still has $117K of so-called debt hanging over her that she will never be able to pay.
CPAG says that the rules around relationships in the welfare system belong to another era, and are desperately in need of updating to reflect the modern family.
People who are considered to be in a 'relationship in the nature of marriage’ by Work and Income lose their individual benefit entitlements and are assumed dependent upon the ‘partner’. This may have other dangerous ramifications for the parent and his or her children.
CPAG 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."
"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.
As a first and immediate response to the current punitive approach to relationships, the Government could:
- Remove the couple penalty by raising the ‘married’ person rate of a benefit to the single rate and allow each person to have the same exemption for earned income.
- Allow sole parents to retain their benefit, if they wish, until such time as they meet criteria in accordance with the Property (Relationships) Act.
- Abolish debt associated with convictions for so called ‘relationship fraud’ where a jail sentence has been served and discontinue imposing jail sentences for this ‘crime’.
Find out more about CPAG’s recommendations for a welfare system that is fit for families in the 21st century here.