A Third Of Our Children Cannot Wait Four Years
11 September 2002
A third of our children cannot wait four
Parliament - General Debate
EMBARGOED UNTIL DELIVERY
Earlier this week the Ministry of Social Development released its briefing papers to the incoming Government. Unusually lucid and straightforward for this type of document, the papers back up what the Green Party has been pointing out right through this year's election campaign - that far too many of our country's children live in poverty, and that action must be taken immediately to relieve the situation.
The MSD Report states very clearly that incomes for many families are simply not adequate. MSD estimates that up to 29 per cent or approximately 285,000 children are living in poverty right now.
Two key reasons for inadequate income levels are given - firstly, that rates of Family Support have not been adjusted since 1998 with a corresponding loss of 5.5 per cent in real value, and income thresholds have not been adjusted since 1994.
And secondly, more and more families are shown as relying on discretionary hardship benefits like Special Needs Grants for survival. This demonstrates once again that core benefit rates are grossly inadequate, unsurprising given that benefits have never been restored to their pre-May 1991 equivalent or anything like it, despite the recent existence of a Labour-Alliance Government from whom we might have expected more.
The same papers also back up what beneficiary groups and the Green Party have been saying for years - that the way in which the benefit system itself is administered leaves much to be desired. For example, MSD reports that about 70 per cent of frontline staff time is spent on sorting out income support for people, with a disproportionate amount of that time being spent on discretionary hardship entitlements.
A far smaller amount of time is taken up in helping people get off benefits and back into the paid workforce, when surely it would be better for all concerned if that was the priority. I am delighted that the Department is acknowledging the need to free up case managers' time so they can work with people who are looking for jobs, a much more productive use of taxpayers' money.
It is also great to hear that the department is quote 'developing strategies to ensure that clients receive their full entitlement.' My only question here is why isn't it happening already, given that the Minister has given repeated assurances that it is the policy of Work and Income to grant people their full entitlements when they first approach staff for assistance.
While I've been unusually impressed by these briefing papers, what is less impressive is the Government's response.
In a statement earlier this week the Minister Steve Maharey said that it would be another three to four years before the benefit system could be revamped. Why wait so long? Isn't the fact that the Minister's own Department accepts that 29 per cent of children live in poverty now and that a huge amount of staff time is wasted on administering an absurdly out of date system enough proof that action is needed sooner rather than later?
And if it's the Minister of Finance who's holding him back on increasing benefit and Family Support levels, perhaps Mr Maharey could take a look at a statement from Dr Cullen released today. Talking about the Government's new-old plan to forge a three way compact between unions, employers and Government, Dr Cullen has come out saying the plan was to quote 'build social consensus after a long period of social division.'
I think Mr Maharey could make a very good case to Dr Cullen right now that if he is serious about putting an end to the social division that has resulted from eighteen years of deliberately created unemployment and poverty, the first step would be to revamp the benefit and family support system completely, on principles of simplicity, equity and sufficiency.
The outdated Social Security Act of 1964 with its dozens of subsequent amendments should be chucked in the bin where it belongs.
Core benefits must be enough for a family to live on, without the array of add-ons which are currently granted with vast ethnic and geographical disparities around the country as recent reports on the Special Benefit have shown.
Family Support and Family Assistance must be revamped and updated as soon as possible. On top of that the Green Party would like to see a Universal Child Benefit introduced, even at a comparatively low rate, so that the primary caregivers of all children receive a minimum amount of extra support, a small first step in comarison to the drastically more generous universal provision we offer our older ctizens with universal superannuation.
The Government is asking families who are struggling right now to wait four years for help. This simply isn't good enough. It's no good talking about things like a Commission for the Family when in reality what needs to happen is already laid out in these briefing systems. I say to United Future and Labour - let's stop mucking around and simply get on with the job of ending child poverty in Aotearoa NZ, right now.