Welfare system rules around relationships unjustly punish and stigmatise already struggling single parents, says Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG).
The Public Policy Institute (PPI), University of Auckland and CPAG are pleased to publish a new report “Relationship Status and the welfare system in Aotearoa New Zealand” by researchers Olivia Healey and Jennifer Curtin for the Peter McKenzie Project.
This report summarises the outdated thinking about the nature of relationships and dependence on a partner, the application of current rules, which state that to receive a Sole Parent Support benefit, an applicant: ‘must not be in a relationship in the nature of marriage’.
The authors say that the constitution of the family unit and nature of relationships have changed considerably in the last 60 years.
“Therefore, rules need to be altered accordingly,” say Healey and Curtin. “Questions must also be raised around the current ‘dobbing in’ practices, which can lead to unnecessary and harm-causing investigations.”
“The definition of what constitutes a relationship is very unclear,” says Dr Jennifer Curtin, Director of PPI, and co-author of the report. “The report details how decisions are often left in the hands of Work and Income staff. The effects of penalties for getting this wrong can be long-lasting for both women and children. There can be accusations of ‘relationship fraud’, possible criminal conviction and even imprisonment.”
People on benefits can be subjected to an unjust and invasive scrutiny – both by Work and Income staff and by the public, who are encouraged to report a suspected fraud.
“It is critical that government policy moves toward an individualised system, which would allow for people on benefits to make better choices about their living situations, and not be forced into greater poverty when attempting to repartner,” says Curtin.
CPAG says that cases of so called ‘benefit fraud’ are usually best called ‘disputed over payments’. The term ‘benefit fraud’ should be restricted to cases where there is a deliberate intent to defraud such as accessing benefits in multiple names or while in full-time work.
CPAG has long been concerned at the impact of relationship status rules on child poverty. “Single parents who are in receipt of a benefit are treated as financially dependent on a new partner even when it may be a very new relationship,” says Susan St John CPAG economic spokesperson. “The stringent rules may put them off having a relationship at all, or force them to be dependent in an unhealthy situation.
“Healthy relationships are to be encouraged as very good for children as well as adults and may pave the way forward to better life situations,” says St John. “Unfortunately, under current rules sole parents who re-partner with someone who receives a benefit or has a low income may find themselves financially much worse off.”
In 2018 CPAG called for a complete reform of law relating to relationships. Critical to this reform is the removal of the couple penalty, and raising the ‘married’ person rate of a benefit to the single rate, and allowing sole parents to retain their benefit, if they wish, until such time as they meet criteria in accordance with the Property (Relationships) Act.
The Welfare Expert Advisory Group, in its recent report Whakamana Tāngata: Restoring dignity to Social Security in New Zealand stated that: “the financial penalty for partnering is significant and may be unduly influencing partnering decisions” and suggested that more time should be allowed for a relationship to form before imposing financial co-dependence, and that the “Government investigates options to bring the couple rate of benefit closer to double the single rate” and that there be: “a period of 6 months from initial moving in together rather than the current 6 weeks” before a relationship is classified as ‘in the nature of marriage’.
However CPAG believes that this period is far too short and that the rules should be more aligned to the Property (Relationships) Act period of three years before assets are legally divided equally.
The new report from CPAG and PPI reinforces the need for immediate reform of the welfare system including relationship rules, so its basis is in kindness and empathy rather than distrust.
For more on CPAG’s call for a complete reform of the welfare system read: What will it take to have a welfare system fit for families in the 21st century (published September 2018).