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Auckland City Mission distribution centre volunteers making food parcels. Photo/Adrian Malloch.

Solo mums on benefits having to decide between food and fuel

Solo mums on the benefit are still struggling to make ends meet, with some going hungry to feed their kids. What happened to the Coalition government's promise to overhaul the welfare system and lift families out of poverty? RNZ's social issues reporter Sarah Robson investigates.

When Josephine's* six-year-old son broke his arm, she had to make a choice: petrol for the two-hour round trip to the hospital for his appointments, or the weekly supermarket shop.

"That was one trip a week to the city, so the petrol was horrendous, but you can't not do it."

Josephine is raising two kids on sole parent support - what used to be known as the domestic purposes benefit or DPB - and says money is tight. She gets $750 per week for her and two children including an accommodation allowance. “I just didn't go to the supermarket for those three weeks. I'm lucky in that I have my mum's garden, so we have leafy greens, and we just ate all our stocks."

It's a choice no parent wants to make, but it's a choice many solo mums on the benefit are facing day in, day out. "I thought the fact that I had to trim our food budget was a failing on my part. I thought it was personal. I thought it was because of some fault of mine, rather than it actually isn't enough to live on," Josephine says.

According to the latest figures from the Ministry of Social Development, there are just over 59,000 people on sole parent support and the vast majority of them are women. Between them, they're raising more than 116,000 children.

Living on the breadline

Taylor* has four kids between the ages of eight and three and she says it's a struggle to make ends meet on the sole parent benefit, which starts at a basic rate of $389 per week before tax for one child, often with other allowances added in. When money is really tight and there are extra bills to pay, she's had to resort to help from a food bank.

"I feel shame, but I need it for my kids. I don't mind for myself, I can starve, but it's my kids."

In the year to June, the Auckland City Mission handed out just over 23,000 food parcels. That's an increase of 40 percent on the year before, when it handed out almost 16,000. Its general manager of social services Helen Robinson says overwhelmingly, it's women who are coming in for help. "It's Māori and Pacific women, it's women raising children, and particularly women raising children alone," she says. "When you stand back and look at the bigger picture, of who is bearing the burden of poverty in our country, it is sadly women."

Robinson says many of them are already getting everything they can from Work and Income. In the three months to June, the Ministry of Social Development handed out just over 229,000 food grants - at a cost of $22.5 million.That's double what it was two years ago. But Robinson says even with that help, many still don't have enough. "If you look at what's coming in and then you look at the basics in terms of paying for housing costs, transport costs, school costs, medical costs - food becomes the last on that long list," she says. 

Auckland City Mission's general manager of social services Helen Robinson says most of those seeking food parcels are women. Photo: RNZ Insight / Sarah Robson.

A political promise

An overhaul of the welfare system was promised as part of Labour's confidence and supply deal with the Greens. The agreement said excessive sanctions would be removed and changes would be made so people got everything they were entitled to. Those changes would ensure people could live in dignity - and families would be lifted out of poverty.

The government appointed an 11-member expert advisory group to scrutinise the system and come up with ways to fix it. Its 200-page report concluded the welfare system was no longer fit-for-purpose and needed fundamental change. It made 42 recommendations. Implementing all of them would come with a price tag of just over $5 billion. So far, the government has adopted just three.

An announcement

In May, Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni unveiled the government's initial response to the welfare expert advisory group's report. There would be changes to link benefit levels to wage growth and increases to the amount beneficiaries could earn before deductions were made from their payments. There would also be more money for recruiting Work and Income case managers to help get people into jobs. And from April 1 next year, the government will fulfil Labour's pre-election pledge to remove the sanction on solo mums who don't name the father of their children. 

Child Poverty Action Group spokesperson Susan St John says sanctions only create more hardship for beneficiaries. Photo: RNZ Insight / Sarah Robson

The Child Poverty Action Group has been among those pushing for an end to that sanction, which its economics spokesperson Susan St John says has exacerbated the hardship many sole parent families are facing. She says the government should be acting far more quickly to repeal it. "If it's unjust next year, it's unjust right now and it was unjust for many years." 

St John says the government's other changes don't go far enough - and they'll have little impact on how much money beneficiaries have in their pocket. "Benefits needed to be raised substantially before indexation. Indexation will only give a few dollars extra a week and not until next year," she says. And she says the amount beneficiaries can earn before they're subject to deductions will only increase by $25 by 2023. "This isn't enough to compensate just for normal increases that would have been expected over that time.

"Those two changes are simply completely insufficient as a response."

What's next?

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni says it's impossible to implement all of the welfare expert advisory group's recommendations at once. She's defended the decision not to introduce a general increase to benefit levels, saying the previous government's $25 one-off increase in 2015 was lost with the rising cost of housing. "I'm relieved that some of the initial changes that we've made are changes that are systematic changes that were long overdue and they are enduring." 

Carmel Sepuloni photographed in her Kelston electorate office. RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly.

Sepuloni says further changes to the sanctions regime are being looked at, but they're still working out how the rules might be changed fairly, without leaving the system open to exploitation. She expects to be taking a three to five year plan for the overhaul of the welfare system to cabinet before the end of the year.

For Josephine though, further changes can't come soon enough.

"Why can't they go, 'wow, you're already working all the hours of the day and night raising children who will run our country eventually, gosh, you deserve to not be stressed out 100 percent of the time to make ends meet, here's some help with that'?"

*Some names have been changed

This article was first published on Radio NZ.  Follow Insight on Twitter.