This week we’ve been hearing stories of how section 70A of the Social Security Bill has been affecting single mothers across New Zealand. In particular, we have heard how a victim of sexual assault, who became pregnant by her attacker, has had her benefit cut by over $20 per week, because she refuses to name the biological father of the child. Her benefit was docked despite the fact that there is an exemption to the sanction if the pregnancy is a result of sexual assault. Work and Income and the Minister have apologised but we know many other women are in her situation right now, and other women are having their income docked for legally valid reasons.
It is of course likely to be in their own financial interest to name the father. Not naming the father means they won’t be able to access the child support themselves when they are in employment. When they don’t name the father I think we should trust there are good reasons.
This is not a new issue. In June last year, the Auckland Action Against Poverty group submitted concerns about these sanctions to the Social Services Select Committee. At the time, the Government was rewriting the Social Security Act and planning to transfer this sanction into the new law. The AAAP noted that while there are exemptions to these sanctions that parents can apply for, they are very inaccessible. Getting an exemption requires legal aid, financial resources, knowledge of the process, and all too often requires women to revisit trauma and violence they have faced This is so unfair. The Government should not be forcing women to relive some of their hardest moments simply to be able to receive their full benefit. They further noted that many women they have supported hadn’t even been told about a sanction had been applied.
Last year, the Minister asked the Ministry of Social Development for advice on this sanction, to see if this punitative policy has the desired outcome of encouraging women to name their child’s father for child support collection purposes. That report was due out last September, but we are yet to hear anything about it. So, the Government is still standing by this sanction, despite not knowing if it actually achieving its (very questionable) goal. As we know, New Zealand has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the western world. We need to do all we can to protect people who face domestic violence – removing this sanction would be one way of doing so.
Children of sole parents have been found, by the Ministry of Social Development, to face severe hardship. These sanctions only make this worse. $28 per week may not be much to the Government, but it is a significant amount to a beneficiary. $28 per week could mean a parent could afford some filling school lunches. Or it could mean half a tank of petrol. It’s two hours of before or after school care. Or 14 loaves of budget bread. $28 is almost a week’s worth of public transport. Or some warm jerseys. Point being: when you struggle to make ends meet, $28 per week is a lot of money.
The Government needs to show some compassion, and reconsider this harmful sanction.