Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Paula Bennett’s welfare abuse

July 1st, 2009

To date, the government’s response to the recession has been faulted on the demand side – for not giving sufficient stimulus to the economy, as reflected in its wilful misdirection of most of the April tax cut money to the top tier of incomes, when low income earners would have spent the money to far better economic effect. The lack of proper planning and funding for social welfare provision has been just as disastrous.

Right now, the government seems intent on forcing more and more of the victims of this recession into fewer and fewer job openings. On National Radio this morning for instance, Social Welfare Minister Paula Bennett could be heard riding off energetically in all directions. Why, she was going to hand the Disabilities portfolio over to Taraina Turia in order to concentrate on getting people into jobs! We were dreaming, Bennett said, if we didn’t think that unemployment wasn’t going to increase.

Fabulous. So, beyond the slogans and empty gestures, would she be relaxing any of the eligibility settings for assistance, in recognition of the scale of the recession? No, not at all. Earlier this year, Bennett refused to instruct her staff to exercise discretion when it came to dispensing help through the Temporary Additional Support (TAS) scheme – which is the last line of defence for people in danger of slipping through the welfare safety net. Now was not a time to ‘tinker’ with the rules, she told me when taking questions about the government’s response to the recession, at a post Cabinet press conference.

In similar vein, Bennett is refusing to revisit the eligibility rules in households where one partner is still working. Currently, as Sue Bradford of the Greens has pointed out, couples with an earner in paid employment need to be amassing below $534 a week before the unemployed partner can qualify for the dole, or the DPB. This rule is, among other things, serving to keep the welfare figures conveniently and artificially low. As Bradford says, the situation is putting pressure on couples to split, in order to gain access to assistance. Shouldn’t Christine Rankin and the Families Commission be having something to say to Bennett about her eligibility rules?

These rules, as Susan St John and Keith Rankin showed yesterday in the NZ Herald, stand up badly to international comparison, and are inherently unfair :

Mary Williams, of Muriwai Beach, who lost her job in a bank in March, said in a letter to the Herald: “Why am I classed as a single earner paying ACC and income tax when employed, but classed as a couple when out of work?”

She and her husband Neville have started selling their possessions. “Because my husband earns just above the income limit for a couple, I cannot register for unemployment,” she said.

So, it is all very well for the government to say it is concentrating on getting people back into work. Already, the inadequacy of this response is evident : because there are not enough jobs for the people, and for the families, most at risk. Eligibility rules for assistance that have been premised on a relatively healthy job market and a ready return to employment are no longer adequate. Still, this government currently seems uninterested in responding to genuine need – it is more about spinning an appearance of concern, for the re-assurance of the majority still in work.

That approach is extremely short-sighted. “Financial pressures that attack the family unit lead to deepening poverty and emotional damage for all concerned,” Bradford says. “In the long term, poor educational, health and employment outcomes for children and adults in sole parent families will cost us more than easing rules on income levels and benefit entitlements.”

It would take five minutes for Bennett to issue a direction that people with partners in paid employment can access the unemployment benefit. She should also be telling her front line staff to administer the TAS benefits with discretion, and according to need. Yet that would be to assume that this government has an interest in steering New Zealand through this recession with anything other than its own welfare in mind.


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