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.

But it’s the kids that cop the consequences

A difficult situation was raised on The Nation this morning – a policy where mothers who don’t name the father of their children gets less benefit.

The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Andrew Becroft

Lisa Owen: Well, seeing as we’re talking about benefits, there is more than 13,000, and they’re mainly women, who are currently getting their benefits docked because they name or won’t name the father of their child. That equates to 17,000 children who are missing out because that money’s not in the benefit every week. Do you think that that is a policy that puts kids at the centre?

Andrew Becroft: No. I don’t. In fact, we gave to this government three, what we thought, were doable improvements that would improve the position of children at the most disadvantaged end. That was one of them – to remove that obligation.

Lisa Own: So, you believe that those sanctions – because there’s an opportunity to do it, as that piece of legislation is under review – so you do you think that they should can that? That it’s too punitive for kids?

Andrew Becroft: In principle, I don’t think it’s child-centred or child-focused. And whatever the rationale for it, it disadvantages kids and it’s not good for children.

If the welfare of the children is paramount, then this seems a draconian and punitive policy that is certain to adversely affect the kids.

Of course children not knowing who their father is is not a great situation either.

Neither is it good that fathers don’t take responsibility for the care and provision of their children.

On Thursday the Herald had an article about this with an eye raising example:  Sanction hurting solo mums by reducing benefit for not naming father

Parents who don’t legally identify the other parent have $22 deducted every week for each child. A further $6 per family is added if it continues for over 13 weeks.

Auckland woman Stephanie, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, can’t prove the father of five of her 10 children. She gets $116 deducted from her benefit every week.

Wow on both counts – the lack of proof of fatherhood of 5 of ten children, and the $116 deduction.

She said the father of four of her children has denied he is their parent. The 33-year-old is currently pursuing court action to get a paternity test. The father of her youngest child claimed he hasn’t had the birth registration papers delivered to his house for him to sign.

Stephanie said it was like the Government was punishing her and her children, when the blame sat with the fathers.

Instead it was her and her babies that went without food and clothing and struggled to make ends meet.

“Caring for them isn’t hard, but financially it is. We can’t afford heaps of things.

A certain amount of the blame is certainly with the fathers. A father should take responsibility for the care of their children, full stop.

But I don’t like the threat of a reduction of a benefit being used as stick to try to force revealing who the parent is. It shouldn’t have to come to this (parents’ responsibility), but it is also not a good way to deal with it.

But a mother who has 10 children with what sounds like at least three fathers has to take a big dollop of responsibility too.

Men have to take some responsibility for birth control if they have sex.

But the ultimate responsibility has to be with the mother. Once a woman becomes pregnant it can be her sole responsibility whether she has the baby or not.

I think it’s fair to question the responsibility of having ten children and relying on the benefit to support them. It seems an extraordinary situation.

The mother has to take some responsibility for being a solo parent – as do the fathers.

A Ministry of Social Development spokeswoman said the policy was introduced in 1990 to encourage the other parent to take responsibility and contribute to the cost of raising their child.

“If a person does not apply for Child Support or identify the other paying parent, their benefit rate will be reduced.”

The spokeswoman said an exemption can be granted for reasons such as family violence concerns, the pregnancy being a result of sexual violation and insufficient evidence being available to establish who the other parent is.

But Cole said an exemption was difficult to obtain and meant the beneficiary had to disclose their sexual history to a lawyer and then retell that story in an open-plan Winz office.

I think that’s putting sole parents in an awful situation.

But some people – both mothers and fathers – put their children in awful situations through a lack of responsibility, restraint or contraception.

This is something that has no easy solutions. The kids are the ones who will suffer – from a lack of money and from a lack of parent.