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Assistance Should Help ALL Low Income Families

Housing Assistance Should Help ALL Low Income Families
Weekly Opinion Piece by Dr Muriel Newman MP

Last week, claims were made in Parliament that the newly introduced Housing Restructuring (Income-Related Rents) Amendment Bill 2000 would cure poverty. This Bill, which establishes income-related rents for 40,000 state house tenants, fails to help some 160,000 low-income families who do not live in a state house but who need housing assistance. An estimated 200,000 families receive the accommodation supplement, with state house tenants being just a small proportion. Any Bill that ignores the needs of the low-income majority, while helping a minority, cannot support the broad claim to be eliminating poverty.

This Bill, which introduces two controversial initiatives – discrimination and income and asset testing - received a black mark from the Attorney General. In a report to Parliament the Attorney General, Margaret Wilson, said that the Bill breached the Bill of Rights by discriminating on the basis of age, marital status and number of children. She recommended that more work needs to be done on the Bill.

The Attorney General, however, failed to address a wider issue. The Bill introduces into legislation a new form of discrimination based on who your landlord is. While providing extra financial assistance to low-income families who have the state as a landlord, the Bill fails to help families in the same or worse situations, who are renting a private house. The Government is legislating so it can discriminate against the majority of low-income families who need help but rent from the private sector, in favour of the few who rent from the state.

In another surprising move, the Bill introduces income and asset testing. Those families seeking assistance will be required to open their books for inspection, to see whether or not their income and asset position will enable them to qualify for rental help.

Broad claims that this Bill will eliminate poverty are clearly spurious. A relatively small number of low-income families, who are receiving less than or equal to the superannuation rate ($225.55 single and $347 couples), will receive, on average $20 to $30 a week extra. While that extra money will help those families lucky enough to qualify, it will not, by any stretch of the imagination, eliminate poverty. As the Minister of Housing, Mark Gosche has confirmed, what this policy will do is create a growing waiting list for state houses.

By 1988, as a result of the Labour Party’s income related rent policy, over 60,000 people were waiting for a state house. The Labour Party had to phase in market rents as a mechanism to curb the growth of the waiting list.. According to a survey carried out by the Housing Network and reported on in the Dominion Editorial of 25 February 1988, “dozens of Auckland families live in vermin infested hovels. It is not uncommon for sleeping children to have their faces bitten by rats. Most enter hospital before they are five, for illness thrives in these conditions”.

There is no logic behind going back to policies that create that sort of outcome.

So if this income-related rent policy will not cure poverty, what will?
There is no question that entrenched poverty has to be a major concern of government especially as it is more often than not linked to long term benefit dependency which destroys outcomes for children. However, A few extra dollars in the pockets of those in State Houses may help them in the short term, but it will not solve the longer term problem. Fair Government policies should give all struggling low-income families the opportunities they need and deserve to escape the poverty trap.

30/05/00 04:29

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Dr Muriel Newman, MP for ACT New Zealand, writes a weekly opinion piece on topical issues for a number of community newspapers. You are welcome to forward this column to anyone you think may be interested.

Visit ACT New Zealand's web site: http://www.act.org.nz

Muriel appreciates the opportunity to keep you informed and thanks you for your continued interest in ACT New Zealand.


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