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Benefit time limits for young people are not the solution

A young person transitioning into adulthood needs support, not a time limit, writes Youth Development Worker Aaron Hendry.

One of the ideas floated by the National Party in their new Social Services Discussion Document, amongst other sanctions and obligations, is a time limit on young beneficiaries. Leader Simon Bridges told Newshub there was “a good case” to limit how long young people under 25 can get the benefit.

National MP and social services spokesperson Louise Upston also told John Campbell on Breakfast that they wanted to prevent the next generation from becoming trapped in welfare dependency. But the party seems to be ignoring a recent review of the welfare system which recommends moving away from such punitive approaches and towards more personalised services. 

While the goal of supporting rangatahi to get off the benefit is admirable and we can all get behind that, limiting access, especially for those under 18, won't help them gain meaningful employment. Here’s why:

Right now, 16- and 17-year olds can access a benefit via Youth Services called the Youth Payment. They can get this until the end of their 18th year, at which point they would either get a job, access the Jobseeker benefit, or go study and receive financial support from Studylink.

The Youth Payment was set up to support rangatahi who have had some sort of family breakdown. This means that for whatever reason they can no longer live with their parents and aren’t receiving financial support from their immediate whanau. More often than not, rangatahi accessing this benefit will experience a period of homelessness.

I spent about four years as a Youth Development Worker supporting rangatahi on this payment to access support and the vast majority were either at school, in a course, or desperately trying to find work. In fact, in all my time supporting them through this period of their lives, I never met one person who wanted to be getting the benefit. Many felt a lot of shame because of it and I have known rangatahi who – because of that – resisted getting the benefit, attempting instead to do it rough with no income at all.

Now, let's say you enforce a three to six month time limit. A teenager will likely not finish school in the time allocated so if they are going to provide for themselves to keep a roof over their head and afford food, they will have to leave to work, or work multiple dead-end jobs while struggling to keep up with their school studies. This policy would place a huge barrier on our rangatahi's ability to complete their education.

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The narrative that rangatahi don't want to work and would rather be on the benefit is just not accurate and completely uneducated. I talk to teens every day, and the number one goal many want to achieve is to have a full-time job. They want work – the problem is that most employers don't want to hire a young person. Too many employers want them to have the experience and maturity of a 30- year-old, plus be willing to accept the minimum wage rather than a living wage. Young people require an employer willing to invest in them. They are still young, so they will need to be developed. 

It's all good saying jobs are available, but with many of our rangatahi locked out of these employment opportunities, where does the National Party expect them to find work?

Which leads us to the third issue with placing a time limit on rangatahi: More will end up homeless.

If rangatahi can't find employment and they no longer have access to the benefit, this will mean they will not be able to pay board. In the end, they will end up coach surfing or on the streets. We already have a growing problem with youth homelessness. Currently, there are fewer than 70 designated beds for homeless young people in Auckland and the limited services set up to support them are swamped and filled beyond capacity. There is also no safe, secure emergency accommodation available for a 16- or 17-year-old who needs it. At least, that’s the situation in New Zealand’s most populated city.

This will only open them up to becoming victims of exploitation and abuse. Overseas research shows rangatahi who are homeless are more likely to develop mental illness, become victims of crime, and be pulled into criminal activity and exploited by adults on the street. They are also more likely to be sexually assaulted, become victims of drug addiction, and to develop serious physical health concerns.

In the end, instead of supporting rangatahi to be independent of the welfare system, a time limit will only increase the likelihood of a rangatahi becoming welfare-dependent. We may get them "off the books" quicker, but there will be more harm done in the long run. And likely a whole generation of rangatahi returning to us as adults in need of long-term welfare support.

A Welfare Expert Advisory Group report commissioned by the Ministry of Social Development found "there is little evidence in support of using obligations and sanctions (as in the current system) to change behaviour; rather, there is research indicating that they compound social harm and disconnectedness. Recent studies recommend moving away from such an approach towards more personalised services." 

While I want to take Simon Bridges at face value and believe that his intention is really to serve the most vulnerable as he has stated, these policies have just not been thought through, and in the end will result in more harm.

He is right that the system needs an overhaul but one which is centred on compassion and focused on delivering a service that actually meets the needs of each individual client.

Rangatahi I worked with spent a couple of years on the benefit while they were at school. We then supported them to transition into university or employment, and some received the Job Seeker benefit before they were ready to make that transition.

A time limit wouldn't have helped these rangatahi. Imagine any 16-year-old you know and love. How do you think they would go at being adults and living completely on their own? The teen years are hard and not having support from your whanau and having to rely on the benefit to survive only makes them more difficult.

The benefit can provide security. It should mean that those who want to focus on their education can. And that those who need some time to heal and adjust from whatever traumatic event lead them to need it, get that time. It should mean that our rangatahi don't need to worry about where they are going to sleep and how they are going to afford dinner. It should.

Instead of more sanctions and limited access, how do we make sure that rangatahi can access safe, stable accommodation so they don’t have to experience homelessness? How do we ensure that youth services are set up in a way which enables genuine development to happen, where our practice is centred on developing rangatahi to thrive? How do we make certain that every rangatahi who needs the benefit, can access it, so that they do not have to spend time without food and accommodation while they wait?

National are right to challenge the government, they are right to call for reform. There is a lot to be critiqued within the welfare system without going in the direction which their Social Services document has set. 

If National want to do more than just be contrary, they need to dig deeper to get beneath the surface of what is going on for New Zealanders. It is lazy to call for sanctions and target beneficiaries. To lead the nation into nuanced debate about what true transformation would look like, however, that would take leadership.

Simon Bridges has 12 months to decide what direction he will take his party and in doing that will define what sort of leader he will choose to be.

I hope, for the sake of our people, he chooses the path least travelled.

Aaron Hendry blogs at When Lambs Are Silent and is Team Leader at Lifewise Youth Housing. 

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