Stuff article: Welfare overhaul must put kids before adults

Feb 14 2019

OPINION: As the Government's Welfare Expert Advisory Group prepares its report for an administration promising to overhaul the welfare system, its challenge is to be bold with its advice so that people who need support can live with dignity.
Birthright is concerned about the experiences of families led by one person. Today, that's the case for 27 per cent of New Zealand families. About one in two mothers have spent time parenting alone, before they reach the age of 50. A third of children have lived with a sole mother for some time by the time they are 17. In 2013 there were 230,000 single-parent families. Today there are more.

Families led by one person are strong and resilient – they have to be to manage the failures in our system. Birthright has been working with families led by one person for 60 years – and over that time, despite reviews, promises and changes to the system, little has changed. In fact, the situation has worsened for many families over decades. New Zealand has some of the worst child-poverty statistics for single-parent households in the world.

If we want to improve our child-poverty statistics then we must ensure the poverty rates for single-parent families are not worse than for two-parent families. We need to focus our welfare system on the wellbeing of children regardless of the family circumstances. The welfare-system focus on adults means it has lost sight of the primary task of a families led by one person – to parent the children.

Right now single parents relying on the benefit to bring up children do not have enough to live on. The real value of benefits has not kept up with the cost of living and it means an increase in people seeking hardship assistance through Work and Income to pay bills. Many hardship assistance grants are recoverable, meaning families are getting into debt with Work and Income to meet their basic needs. Food, a basic necessity for any healthy child, is the main reason people seek hardship assistance.
The rise in hardship grants has been growing steadily since 2015, with a 18.6 per cent increase in the past year. Many single parents have major debts with Work and Income – and this ends up with repayments deducted from their core benefit. It's a vicious cycle of inadequate support and debt. There's no way out.

A welfare system focused on the needs of children first would support a single parent to effectively provide for their family and value the role of parenting. That system would also support that single parent to work part-time when they are ready. The current system provides limited incentive for a single parent to work the hours that work for their family, with onerous abatement rates.

As the Welfare Expert Advisory Group works to shape a welfare system for the 21st century we urge members to reflect on what constitutes a relationship. Financially penalising a woman in 2018 for having sex because it could represent a relationship involving shared income and expenses is insulting. Extending this to relationship fraud with the potential for prison time is unnecessarily punitive and detrimental to children.

The group has a huge responsibility, particularly when it comes to families and children. Fundamental changes to funding, approach and ambition are required to improve the lives of families led by one person. The rewards, however, will be great. Significantly improving the lives of these families will secure the future of hundreds of thousands of children.

Megan Thomas is chief executive of Birthright. Birthright specialises in working with families led by one person.

The Dominion Post