• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Benefit sanctions will cost all of us more in the long run 

National’s simplistic social policy positions such as the use of benefit sanctions will only exacerbate poverty in New Zealand.

Stopping women whose partners may be gang affiliated and their children from accessing the benefit is a poorly thought through social policy. 

Benefit sanctions are a false economy that achieve very little except to exacerbate misery, increase poverty, and create additional flow-on costs for our health, education, and justice sectors. They exemplify cruelty towards vulnerable families, prioritize denial of services over basic humanity, and intensify the existing cost of addressing social issues. We’ve already seen one example of how sanctions hurt mothers and children in the case of Anna.

Essentially, when people have insufficient means for basic daily living, they are forced to make difficult choices.

Over the past five years, I have talked with research participants across five different projects with various community groups and organisations. The experience of food insecurity, hunger, and discrimination associated with poverty, whether gang-affiliated or not, is universal. 

People across the board described a variety of techniques for stretching meagre funds and creative ways of sourcing food to eat. What is clear from interviewing them is that it is only when facing utter desperate need for food that people engage in socially unacceptable practices, such as eating from rubbish bins, five-finger discounts, and begging on the street.

Food sourcing activities deemed more socially acceptable by wealthier groups such as accessing emergency food grants, foodbanks, and charity are too often textured with a feeling of stigma and shame. The humiliation and degradation that many feel at the hands of the welfare office drives our most in need to hide their realities and to prefer independent food sourcing techniques such as road-side foraging, shop-lifting, and accessing pātaka kai.

Creating a social crisis through benefit sanctions and inhumane treatment, and where feeding your family necessitates criminal activity, is not a financial saving to the State. Neither does it make for human flourishing or positive social relationships. What people need is to be resourced adequately to manage everyday life with dignity; that is, an affordable home to live in, sufficient food to make a meal, and dignifying social interaction. 

Doing so has long-term economic and social benefits: State provision of income support, education, housing, health care, and nutritional assistance programs for parents has been shown to improve long-term health outcomes, educational attainment, employment, and earnings through to adulthood.

In sum, the social safety net acts as a springboard of upward social mobility.

The realities of gangs in New Zealand have been documented in multiple nuanced pieces based on research over the years. Morgan Godfery’s deeply moving and insightful personal essay highlights the underlying drivers of gang recruitment and the inadequacies of taking a punitive approach. Dr Jarrod Gilbert’s research documents the realities of gang life in a humanising and thought-provoking manner. His work acknowledges the complexities and challenges of addressing the underlying social issues driving gang culture, and makes suggestions for addressing these. 

The current abuse in care inquiry identifies the appalling abuse of children by the State as a key driver of entrance into gangs as an adult. Overseas-based research also notes that childhood trauma, intergenerational drug dependency, poverty and violence are hallmarks of a gang member's upbringing.

Read more: Inside Epuni: The hard life served to us as state wards | The tortuous path to justice for state care abuse victims

What is clear from this is that gangs and related activity are a complex topic. Adequately addressing the anti-social nature of certain activities requires more thought and effort than a simplistic punishment that will primarily harm women and children. Publicly seeking to deny vulnerable people support is virtue signalling at its worst, and appalling social policy that does little to effectively address complex social issues at best.

New Zealand used to have social policies based on the notion of human dignity, compassion, and the understanding that sometimes people just needed a little extra support during hard times. Somewhere along the way we lost this value of care for others, and our social policies became more focused on cruelly punishing our fellow citizens most in need. Nowhere is this cruelty more evident than in the practice of sanctioning benefits of mothers for perceived non-compliance with state demands.

New Zealanders deserve politicians that understand and seek to address the underlying drivers of crime, gangs, and poverty. We need a government that is committed to human flourishing for all our communities and whose social policy drives positive social interactions for all our citizens.

Rebekah Graham is a Research Fellow at the School of Psychology & NIDEA, University of Waikato.

Follow NOTED on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to our email newsletter for more insightful opinion.