No questions asked (no sanctions) welfare

One of just three changes as a result of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group report is contentious – it will remove (next year) a sanction (reduction in sole parent benefit) for mothers who don’t name the father of their child or children:

The Government will scrap the discriminatory sanction that cuts income to women and their children if the name of the child’s father is not declared to the Government.

Removing the section 192 sanction will cost $113.4 million over 4 years and will come into effect on 1 April 2020.

The Green Party has wanted a range of sanctions and requirements for getting benefits removed for some time. It was championed by Metiria Turei as she crashed and burned her political career just before the 2017 election, and her successor as Green co-leader, Marama Davidson, has also promoted much higher benefits with no questions asked.

It doesn’t actually start today, it starts in April 2020.

National imposed the sanctions and oppose their removal. Stuff: Government to scrap benefit sanction for solo mums, among welfare changes

National’s spokeswoman for social development, Louise Upston, said her party disagreed with the bulk of the report, “which would see fewer obligations imposed on beneficiaries and fewer incentives to get back into work”.

“Increasing the abatement threshold for people on benefits means people can keep more of what they earn. This is a welcome incentive to encourage more people into work.

“National believes that New Zealanders should be given a hand up, not a hand out and those who can work, should.”

ACT leader David Seymour…

…said removing sanctions on women who don’t name the father of their child is a complete reversal of position for Labour.

“In 2004, Social Development Minister Steve Maharey said: ‘It is a rort, and I have said time and time again in this Parliament that fathers must front up to their obligations, and we will make sure they do … It is not unreasonable to penalise financially those who do not.’

“This change will mean taxpayers will assume greater responsibility for supporting children, rather than their fathers.

Auckland Action Against Poverty…

…said it was glad to see the Government “finally taking action to stop punishing sole parents and children”.

It urged the Government to also ensure that every woman who had been penalised by the sanction received back pay, however the Minister told media this would not happen.

From the WEAG report:

The current benefit system is based on a one of conditionality and sanctions. We heard overwhelmingly through our consultation that such a system diminishes trust, causes anger and resentment, and contributes to toxic levels of stress. The application of obligations and sanctions in New Zealand (and elsewhere) is problematic.

The empirical literature provides no single, overarching answer to whether obligations and sanctions in welfare systems bring about the desired forms of behavioural change, such as movement into paid work or whether the positive effects of obligations outweigh the negative (Watts & Fitzpatrick, 2018: 111).

Research does indicate that obligations and sanctions can be costly to administer and comply with and have many harmful unintended consequences that compound social harm and disconnectedness (for example, movement in and out of insecure jobs, interspersed with periods of unemployment; disengagement from the social security system; increased poverty; increased crime to survive; worsened ill-health and impairments) (Economic and Social Research Council, 2018; Watts & Fitzpatrick 2018; Butterworth et al, 2006; Kiely & Butterworth, 2013; Davis, 2018). There is even less evidence that non-work-related obligations and associated sanctions achieve the stated aims of intended behavioural modification.

A high number of obligation failures15 are disputed (46%) and almost all (98%) of these disputes are upheld with the failure being overturned.

Require mutuality of expectations and responsibilities

The current obligations and sanctions regime must be immediately reformed into a system of mutual expectations and responsibilities that are applied according to the circumstances of the individual. They must be applied in a way that meets the values of the system, with robust checks and balances to mitigate potential negative impacts on individuals and their families and whānau.

Removing the father naming sanction makes it easier for fathers to avoid responsibility.

The report recommended a range of obligations and sanctions be removed.

  • the requirement to complete specific activities before a benefit is granted (pre-benefit activities)
  • the sanction where benefit payments stop if people have a warrant out for their arrest, and continue data matching with the Ministry of Justice and take a proactive supportive approach to contacting these people
  • social obligations that require people receiving a benefit to take all reasonable steps to have their children enrolled with a medical practice, be up to date with their Wellchild/Tamariki Ora checks and be attending early childhood education or school
  • pre-employment drug testing and provide specialised support for people with substance use disorders
  • the mandatory work ability assessment for people with health conditions or a disability and link workability assessments to return to work plans
  • the requirement to reapply for a benefit every 52 weeks – MSD is expected to provide full and correct entitlements through regular reviews (at least annually)
  • work obligations when an additional child is included in a benefit (the subsequent child rule)
  • the sanction on not naming another parent (was section 70A in the Social Security Act 1964 and is now section 192 of the Social Security Act 2018).

Only the last of those is being being removed by the Government, so most sanctions will remain.

The cost of removing the s192 parent naming sanction is estimated to cost $113.4 million over 4 years, which is $28.35 million annually.

“Around 24,000 children will be significantly better off as a result of this change, with many sole parents’ incomes increasing by an average of $34 a week,” Carmel Sepuloni said.

That’s a lot of children with unnamed fathers.

Doing some calculations the budget suggests about 16,000 solo mothers will have an income (benefit) increase, that’s a lot who don’t name fathers – it’s nearly a quarter of the total of about 60,000 receiving Sole Parent Support  (some of those will be fathers).

Why don’t mothers name fathers?

Some will genuinely not know who the father is, or will be uncertain. And some mothers will have legitimate reasons for having nothing to do with fathers.

In other cases men named as fathers may deny they are the parent.

And there must be some arrangements of silence of convenience, where the mother doesn’t name the father so he doesn’t have to pay maintenance, but under the table support arrangements are made.

$28.35 million annually is not a lot in the whole scheme of social welfare, which has a current  annual budget of $30.6 billion.

This is a small win for the Greens, but when the sanction is removed many children and low income families will be better off, which generally is a good thing.

It may cost a bit more as more solo mothers are likely to choose to not name the fathers, which is likely to reduce the number fathers paying maintenance, but this is likely to be not substantial.