The Budget and the Benefit

In the 2015 Budget the Māori Party negotiated and secured around $1 billion worth of funding directed toward Māori initiatives and the countries most vulnerable whānau.  The most significant gain being the increase in the core benefit rate of $25 per week. The first increase in 43 years. However, in giving with one hand, National took with the other by imposing stricter obligations on sole parents, who will now be required to return to work two years earlier and for longer hours.

Understandably, many are expressing concern that the hardship package is fraught with challenge and will not remedy child poverty in Aotearoa. For instance, Metiria Turei of the NZ Greens was quick off the mark to point out the flaws and concerns in the package:

In fairness, I’ve not seen anyone claim the hardship package is a panacea to the country’s social and economic ills. Nor would I expect that anyone would think this was some kind of magical fix. Poverty is complex. It is layered and each situation requires different approaches to not only address the hardship each whānau face, but to also step out a plan to overcome hardship permanently. This in my mind, is the benefit of having around $50 million more funding toward Whānau Ora to be distributed by commissioning agencies to ensure those funds reach frontline services, and therefore whānau.

However, unlike some others, I don’t see the increase in the core benefit rate as a negative. I applaud the Māori Party, in Te Ururoa Flavell’s words, for pulling this over the line. I mean even if National only agreed to the increase to save political face, in my mind, what matters is that for the first time in 43 years our core benefit rate has increased. This means that any future government can arguably increase the amount further without causing a massive public outcry. In my opinion, the left (many of whom are being incredibly critical of the increase) should champion this idea. Afterall, the New Zealand public are likely to adapt or perhaps cope better with incremental increases to core benefit rates than they are to sharp increases.

I do agree that the immediate material impact may be minor for many of the whānau targeted by this policy. But the long term prospects for those families who find themselves on a benefit are much better today than they were the day before the budget or indeed since the massive cuts in 1991 under the National government at that time.

A small anecdotal note, however,  for those claiming that $25 per week or the $18.40 or something that it turns out to be is laughable, or not even worth implementing.  I can assure you, as child of a beneficiary parent in the 1990’s, that “something” will always be better than nothing. I am not saying we should just settle for the bare minimum. I am saying that this “something” although not enough to fix hardship, could mean the difference between having a home with power versus a home without power. It could mean the difference between having porridge in the cupboard versus having nothing. It could mean the difference between sandwiches for lunch versus having nothing. It could mean the difference between accommodation versus eviction. It could mean the difference between going on a school trip versus feigning a sick day. So yes, based on my own personal experience I am going to be supportive of any policy that increases core benefit levels.

Is it enough? Absolutely not. But I’d just ask people to be mindful that when you claim $5, $10, $20, or $25 etc is nothing – you might want to check your privilege. It can make a difference. And even if only minor, that difference can change a persons outlook, or even just what kind of day they have. This matters to those who have been forced to become accustomed to having nothing.

Furthermore, when the ethos of a political party changes from ‘slash the benefit’ to ‘increase the core rate’ then progress has been made.  Just over three quarters of a billion dollars targeted at poverty is a milestone in these circumstances. Social change doesn’t happen from people crowing at the sidelines. It takes collaboration and nurturing of relationships to create and instill change. We are yet to see whether the National Party will embody this change in focus and become more receptive to issues around poverty in future. Although, the more stringent work requirements for sole parents on a benefit with toddlers arguably counters the notion of a genuine change.

The other argument as Turei raises above is that these increased work requirements erode the increase in the core benefit rate. I’m not going to dispute that. I wholly disagree with the onerous requirements placed on sole parents to become available for work for 20 hours p/w, as opposed to 15 hours p/w, when their child turns 3 years old, as opposed to 5 years old. Sacraparental sets out 16 reasons why that particular policy is problematic.

However, I think we can support the increase in the core benefit rate for the reasons I set out above, while remaining critical of the increased work expectations. To this end, I think the Māori Party have done some great mahi to negotiate an historic increase in the benefit coupled with the extra funding for Whānau Ora and other initiatives that can help address hardship and also temper some of the challenges inherent in the onerous work availability policy.

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