Sanctions must be removed from Social Security Legislation

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) is supporting a campaign and online petition by Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP) to Stop the Sanctions imposed on beneficiary parents - sanctions that harm many children.

On Thursday 15 September, AAAP will be launching their campaign, which calls for the removal of Sections 176, 177, 178 from the Social Security Legislation Rewrite Bill. These sections impose a weekly sanction of $22 or more, per child, on beneficiary sole mothers who have not identified the father of their child, pushing already struggling families into greater hardship. Currently there are approximately 17,000 children in Aotearoa New Zealand affected by this sanction. Of the 13,616 parents,13,298 are women, and only 318 are men. 52.8% are Māori. This policy clearly impacts, disproportionately and severely, women and Māori.

In addition, women who try to have the sanction lifted are forced to share intimate details of their lives, including histories of violence and abuse, to Work and Income case managers in open plan offices, and then must have these stories verified by a lawyer.

Barrister and journalist Catriona MacLennan, author of CPAG’s report Kathryn’s Story, will be representing CPAG as a speaker at the AAAP event, among other organisations who will be contributing to the discussion.

Associate Professor Mike O’Brien, CPAG social security spokesperson, says that benefit sanctions are a "punishment for children".

"Beneficiary mothers are rearing their children in very challenging circumstances and we should be supporting them to do the very best job possible. Punishing the children by removal of their livelihood is not a way to support the mothers - inevitably it makes a difficult situation much worse," says O'Brien.

"We are seeing increased poverty in New Zealand, high demand for food parcel services that charities are struggling to keep up with. This may be a consequence of sanctions and families moving off benefits and into much poorer situations; we simply do not have enough data to show with certainty what is happening to families. What we do know is what we are seeing, and that is the financial situation is worsening for the worst-off children - and these are the children of beneficiary sole parents.

"If Child Support is paid when a sole mother is on a benefit, it goes to the Government, and effectively pays toward her benefit; she doesn’t receive any extra. There is no justification for just because there is no child support being paid, the mother to receive less benefit because there is no child support being paid. All this effectively does is discriminate against the mothers, and harm the children. It is time we took a much more child-centred approach to welfare policies."

Since the Government introduced the benefit sanctions in 2010, New Zealand has seen its worst-off families falling further and further behind in terms of income equality. Government has made very clear its intention to foreground ‘working’ and being ‘off benefit’ as a means to eliminate poverty. However, with rule changes for beneficiaries, core benefits have shifted away from being child-focused entitlements for parents unable to earn a living, to being payments that are conditional on recipients meeting certain ‘social expectations’. To date there has not been any notable improvement in the situation for the most vulnerable children. The recent Household Incomes Report shows that more than 80,000 children are living in conditions of severe deprivation.

Punishing families by removing portions of their weekly welfare payments is not the way to assist our most vulnerable. Because of a desperate lack of data, there is no way of showing whether all families moved ‘off benefit’ are in better situations and CPAG estimates that there could be more than 100,000 children negatively affected by benefit sanctions.

CPAG stands with AAAP in saying that there is no justification for using the welfare system to economically punish sole mothers and their children. Our welfare system should ensure that sole mothers are able to have the financial security and independence necessary to care for themselves and their children.

Join us at Stop the Sanctions launch this Thursday, 1pm at the Grey Lynn Community Centre.