19th century thinking about relationships – how we hate the poor

By   /   March 20, 2014  /   20 Comments

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Mothers may emerge from prison with large debts that are not forgiven even in cases of extreme hardship. In large part, the media have failed to investigate and report these cases, or to highlight the harm to the children that can result from incarceration of their primary caregiver, her subsequent debt and diminished income.

poor people

Oh my, watching parliament is not good for the soul. The nasty bill on relationship fraud passed its second reading Tuesday night. Only the Greens, Mana and Maori Parties could see its damaging consequences and voted against it. Labour tried to have it both ways: railing against the stigmatising effect it will have for the most vulnerable who often don’t have enough money to look after their children, at the same time as trying to not to look soft on crime.

Their support gives rise to the suspicion that their heart is not in opposing the harsh welfare stance of National.  Were they listening when their leader said “Scrap it” in response to this question from Gordon Campbell?

I haven’t asked about your welfare policy, so I’ll make it specific. We all oppose fraud. Does Labour oppose the government’s new welfare fraud policy whereby the partners of welfare fraudsters will be criminally liable for the fraud, and for the repayment of the entire amount – and not simply for the amount from which they might have indirectly benefited.  If re-elected will Labour retain this provision or scrap it?

So called ‘Relationship Fraud’ is in a quite different category to actual benefit fraud, such as for example use of multiple names to access benefits, or deliberately accessing a benefit once in full-time work. In Chester Borrow’s words:

This bill deals with one particularly troubling aspect of welfare fraud, which we refer to as relationship fraud. Relationship fraud is when someone is receiving a benefit that is dependent on them being single, such as a sole parent support—the old DPB—yet they are in a marriage-type relationship. In this case, their relationship is not simply part of their private life; they are being given money by the taxpayer based on that fact. By failing in their obligations to tell the Ministry of Social Development or even lying to hide their relationship, they continue to receive money that they are not entitled to. The reality of this offending is that it can occur only when the partner is present, but it takes two to tango. The current law means that the beneficiary, usually the woman, is held accountable for her fraud, while the partner often gets off scot-free. We say this is wrong. This bill will create a new offence to hold those partners to account.

The National line has been pious and disingenuous:

 In 2013 relationship offending cost the taxpayer $26 million. That $26 million could have been spent on our most vulnerable families who are in genuine need of assistance. 

Given how complicated the legal test is for “relationship in the nature of marriage” and how it is often incorrectly applied by Work and Income, and how often the alleged debt is overstated, the $26 million figure is highly disputable, small though it is. And then, how hard is it to imagine government actually divvying up any savings for the benefit of the poor?

The fact is that policy has been operating over many years to impose severe penalties on women on the DPB accused of so-called ‘relationship fraud’. Women may be deemed to in a relationship even when that relationship has provided little or no financial support, and/or the relationship is irregular or unstable.

Decisions have led to situations in which primary caregivers, almost exclusively women, have been charged with ‘relationship fraud’, served custodial sentences and become separated from their children, wider family and whanau, with associated disruption to their children’s lives and on-going distress.

Mothers may emerge from prison with large debts that are not forgiven even in cases of extreme hardship. In large part, the media have failed to investigate and report these cases, or to highlight the harm to the children that can result from incarceration of  their primary caregiver, her subsequent debt and diminished income.

The Opposition in the debate pointed to tax evasion as a bigger problem and more worthy of attention.  Of course tax evasion is a huge problem, but the real issue is that pursuing relationship fraud as this bill intends is plain wrong.

The Bill gives the message is that the treatment doled out to women has been justified all along.  The Opposition got side-tracked into arguing that if it applied to someone on a benefit it ought to be extended to the spouses in white collar fraud cases.

Logical maybe but unhelpful! The film ‘Blue Jasmine’ highlighted how women can be complicit in living the lifestyle afforded by the ill-gotten gains of their husbands. But to criminalise them could make marriage extremely dangerous for women who have little or no control over or understanding of what their husbands do.  Note the gender implications: it is no accident that all the rogues in the ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ are men.

So let’s see how ‘relationship benefit fraud’ might arise.  The underlying premise seems to be that a couple collude in pretending they are separate so she can access the DPB. Immediately of course, she comes under pressures to work and the intense scrutiny of WINZ. He becomes liable for child support, but that goes to WINZ not the mother. She loses the ‘In Work Tax Credit’ for her children. Then if he moves out to keep the pretence, there are additional housing costs. They may be marginally better off but at considerable cost of privacy. Few,if any couples would be this calculating or take the risks of this approach.

A second situation may arise when both are unemployed or sick with children and get only the married person rate. Their income is impossibly low. They would be somewhat better off with a sole parent benefit and a single unemployment benefit and for the sake of their survival and their children may try this route.  In the 19th century parents could be sent out to Australia as convicts for stealing a loaf of bread for their children. This bill would fine them $5000 or jail them for a year. Such is progress!

The “villains” that Chester Borrows is actually hounding are described in an impassioned speech from the former  Families Commissioner Dr Rajen Prasad,

… if you are a person who is dependent on a benefit and have children, you virtually have no right to have relationships. … If a person is a sole parent who has children and who is doing their best forms a friendship with somebody, they might see that person a few times a week, and then that may develop over a 4 or 5-month period into something a little bit more than that—maybe visits to the home. In another 3 or 4 months’ time there may even be a night that that person might spend at the home of the person who is on a benefit.

At what point does that become a relationship for which the other person—the person not on a benefit—is then responsible financially? At what point does that happen? This happens in the glare of public life. If you live in a neighbourhood that is hawkish about others, and if you have people who are hawkish about a particular person, then this creates an environment in which those bringing up our children in vulnerable environments, vulnerable situations, and who are dependent on limited State funding are really made more vulnerable by these kinds of provisions.

Let’s hope Labour has a rethink about their support for the bill. Fundamentally it sidesteps the real issue: whether or not a relationship in the nature of marriage exists is far from a black and white exercise. Burrow’s bill makes the potential for harm worse because it does not question the underlying premise that women are and should be dependent on men.

In the 21st century, fluid relationships, same sex relationships, living longer with multiple partners or extended periods on one’s own, make the married/single distinction ludicrous. The tax system treats the individual as an individual, as does ACC, and NZ Super even though it has old fashioned different rates based on marital status. Paid Parental leave is another example. It is past the time we began to do the same in the benefit system instead of widening the net of control, harassment and fear.

 

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About the author

Co-director retirement policy and Research Centre, CPAG management committee

20 Comments

  1. Win says:

    That’s the trouble with Labour they want to have it both ways and end up standing for nothing. They need to do more to draw that proverbial line in the sand and then let the public know what their side of the line looks like. They’re a bit stuck. They cant use the Green party left policies so they remain in the middle? Or do they need to regain the left ground. If they did this I would consider joining up again. But I think they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place with nowhere to go. So a bit useless as a support for the poor really.

    • Marc says:

      WIN – It is all about Labour not wanting to “upset” the middle class voters they are after, as the majority of that middle class have over so many years sucked up all this negative information about “undeserving”, “lazy”, “cheating” and “lifestyle choosing” beneficiaries, they want nothing done for beneficiaries.

      If Labour dares to talk about welfare, they risk instant criticism and attack by certain media persons, and the “tax and waste” talk will start again. The right and their media lackeys have sadly succeeded in shifting common public sentiment so far to the right, that most believe the drivel from Chester Borrows and Paula Bennett, rather than look at the true figures and true life situations of those on benefits.

      I did some advocacy work for some on benefits, and it really shocked me, how some were even criticising others on benefits, who they felt were less deserving. Like the whole of society, even many on benefits are divided and fight each other, rather than stand together.

      Society has become dysfunctional on that side, as sharing, understanding and solidarity are now alien to so many out there. It is all about me, me and more me.

      And once again, I say, the damned MSM have a lot to answer for this!

  2. Priss says:

    Well, I guess that’s decided it for me: Party Vote Green in 2014.

  3. countryboy says:

    What an awful thing . chester burrows is a vile , cruel fool and in reality , no one should take him seriously . I’d prefer to see him pelted out of town under a hail of shit . How can such a moron draw a ministerial wage ?
    Do people , who are not trampled under the weight of the fat and self righteous neo liberal zoo animals that pretend to be humans not understand that cruelty only to serves to create cruelty . Such pinched faced legislation is an abhorrence and any person supporting it is either mind bogglingly ignorant of just plain gleefully evil . And let me tell you , there are more of the latter than most people care to admit out there .

    The fact that Labour sits on the fence and weakly plays politics is a clear indication that the neoliberal cancer is alive and spreading still within the party the used to belong to the rank and file .

    No one from the main parties is coming to the aid of the most vulnerable ? Appalling . ( I hear those who might say ” It’s my tax payer money they’re defrauding ! ” To them I say ‘ The real fraudsters are chester , jonky , cunliffe et al ” . ‘

  4. Ovicula says:

    The Labour caucus hates beneficiaries. Well, I don’t like the Labour caucus much. What a waste of bloody space and oxygen they are.

  5. Marc says:

    As I vaguely recall, while watching bits on Parliament TV that night, I heard Louisa Wall speak on the bill, and she was very disappointing. She did not even appear to have her act together, I mean it appeared she had not prepared her speech that well, as she presented it rather unconvincingly with what she said.

    Like in question time, I hardly ever see and hear her get up and ask any questions, nor does Sue Moroney. Jacinda Ardern was also rather disappointing in her spokesperson role on welfare, and things seem that way, that they are told to give priority to questions on other matters, that the male testosterone and adrenalin driven front-benchers like to ask. Labour are hypocrites on welfare, I fear!

    Yes, Labour is a dismal disappointments, and I advise beneficiaries or those risking to become one, same as those having empathy and supporting them, vote please. It may not be Labour deserving your vote, but at least vote for Greens or Mana.

    We need more votes for the parties and members that actually care and bother about welfare!

  6. Tom says:

    The arguments in the article don’t really matter, since the purpose of the legislation is solely to punish people whom the majority disapprove of.

    You could point out how this mistreats people until you are blue in the face, and supporters of the legislation will agree with you, because they want to see them mistreated. There’s a fair whack of misogyny here, as well as contempt for the idea of “loose morals”.

    The problem is the authoritarianism of ordinary New Zealanders, not the minor nuisance of welfare fraud.

  7. Daniel says:

    Thank you Susan. Very good. I recently had to disclose to WINZ that I was in a relationship, they cut me off because according to them my partner, working for 25c more than minimum wage and who has previously established outstanding debts, is supposed to be able to provide for both of us! I was on a Sickness Benefit to boot. As far as I’m concerned I’m an individual and should be treated like one, single, in a relationship or even married. Everyone has their own personal expenses. I was receiving $12,500pa, and they can’t help me survive and keep my sanity for that meager amount, but they can pay $36,000 for Judith Collins to travel overseas even though she has no ministerial portfolio’s that would necessitate such a trip? Unbelievable.

    • Daniel says:

      We’ve had to decide to move somewhere cheaper and we’re thinking of selling some of our furniture this week so we can buy food. S%$# is not all good.

    • Susan St John says:

      Daniel
      it is such an antiquated and pernicious system. If you are fit well and working and sharing with some-one and over 65 you can get a higher rate of NZ Super and keep it regardless of the other person’s income- unless you confess it is a marriage-like relationship and then all that happens is you get a slightly lower rate- but still no presumption that your partner will ‘keep’ you. Why should someone under 65 an on a sickness or invalids benefit be treated so disgracefully? Why is Labour not leading the way in proper welfare reform??

  8. blue leopard says:

    The thing that would stop ‘rorting’ of the system would be to make the system of payment fairer.

    At present people in couples get less assistance – especially when one or both are working part time – there is a substantial difference.

    It would be simpler and fairer if everyone gets paid as individuals – that being in a relationship didn’t affect the entitlement – those with children, whether single or in a couple get extra assistance for the child.

    That way we wouldn’t need all these investigations and court costs and palaver.

    It really is very simple

    • Susan St John says:

      Blue leopard
      Indeed. It should not be beyond the wit of man (OR LABOUR) to design a welfare state fit for the 21st century

  9. Stuart Munro says:

    Labour’s abstract reasoning on the justice of welfare and relationships fails on two grounds.

    i) People do not, as rwnj bloggers would have you believe, choose to be unemployed. The status is conferred on them without their desire or consent.

    ii) Unemployment is supposed to be a temporary condition. The combination of the failures of the neo-liberal ‘miracle’ to produce any jobs, the freedom with which unregulated foreign labour is brought in, and Treasury’s deliberate suppression of employment as a tool to constrain inflation has instead made it a long term proposition.

    It might be reasonable to suggest that people tailor their priorities in terms of having families to fit their circumstances… for a while… but effectively the government is telling people never to have children.

    They need to take a step back and think about what kind of government says that. Totalitarian China never dared, but Bennett the bitch does, and Labour is lost for a reply? The right answer is “Aux Barricades! & “Off with her head!”. When did they forget our people?

  10. pixelator says:

    At what point does a man who is often not the biological father of a child (children) suddenly become financially responsible for the economic survival of 2 or more people because he is sharing friendship and sexual intimacy with sole parent.

    At what point does a sole parent (assumed female) forfeit her economic autonomy and self determination to another adult because she is sharing friendship and sexual intimacy with a person.

    How do you define friendship and sexual intimacy as being a ‘relationship’, in fact what IS a relationship? can it even be defined legally except to be deliberately punative?

    Assuming the coupling is an emotionally healthy one but not one based in more than friendship and sexual intimacy ie: no financial crossover (going dutch on EVERYTHING) is this a relationship?

    Assuming the couple is NOT emotionally healthy and the man is not financially responsible but there is intimacy and relationship ties formed as a result of a history of dysfunctional coupling, does the woman literally put her life in the hands of this person, and that of her kids?

    Does the community then get to sit in the bedrooms of sole parents and say they are not allowed to experience meaningful contact and/or intimacy with one person free of financial cross over, at the risk of also being stigmatised as loose and irresponsible if their intimate needs are met by more than one person because they are not allowed to be with one person?

    So effectively unless you work as a sole parent, you can’t have sex, or sleep with a person or be fond of anyone because it MUST lead to financial interdependence…. really???

    I could keep going and going like this with questions. that is really the point Im trying to make.

    • Susan St John says:

      Pixelator
      Your ponderings show us where you get to when you actually stop to think about this issue as supposed to simply wanting to demonise the poor. We need more of these questions to expose the inherent racism,misogyny, beneficiary stigmatising and mean-spritedness of the welfare system and the reforms.

  11. For Labour to have voted on this vile piece of legislation, which is nothing more than bene-bashing, shows them for being more gutless than I believed possible.

    I sincerely hope they vote against this on the Third Reading!

    Matt McCarten – time to knock heads together!

  12. jcuknz says:

    Blue Leopard and Tom have it right. Normally I wouldn’t bother to read SstJ but she is right on the ball with this.
    As I wrote on KB and got 13 negs and told to go to the Standard and TDB 🙂 …. sadly the Kiwi is thinking for himself and only himself rather than the concept of a responsible society that the ‘three wise men of Kurow’ came up with along with others of the period.

    A beaurocracy cannot be flexible as this leads to favourism, real or perceived, so the solution is to get rid of the rules and give everybody a guaranteed sum irrespective of martial status, real or perceived, and their responsibilities to offspring. It is merely money going around in circles but doing good as it does.

  13. Mike says:

    The whole idea of dividing the poor into the “deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor” was developed in England in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Reformers such as Jeremy Bentham were trying to create a kind of social conscience in pre-Victorian England but (to appease their own consciences) the wealthy basically convinced themselves that almost all the poor deserved to be poor because it was their own fault that they were poor. That was around 200 years ago and the National Party still clings to it.