Will the Budget truly stand behind the new kindness initiative? Here's a wish list to set the agenda

When Jacinda Ardern announced $37 million in urgent funding to help meet the needs of homeless people this winter, she made the unusually honest Prime Ministerial concession that this was not going to be enough.  

She went on to direct welfare officials to be flexible and to support those coming in for housing and welfare assistance.  

‘That’s the kind of culture change we are expecting’.

Media headlined this initiative as ‘Govt officials told to try a little kindness’, with Phil Twyford adding ‘The government stands ready & willing to help anyone who needs help with housing’.

These were extraordinary statements after a decade in which much of the focus of MSD’s housing and income strategy has been to deny or reduce entitlements when possible, in line with National’s commitment to a social investment welfare system whose overarching goal was to achieve an ‘accumulated actuarial release of welfare liability.’    

The big push on social investment in welfare began with the launch of Paula Rebstock’s Welfare Working Group recommendations in early 2011. These proposals underpinned years of National law changes aimed at making working age income support as punitive and as difficult to access as possible.    

To make matters worse, in 2014 MSD took over the state housing allocation function from Housing NZ, compounding difficulties at the front counters of Work and Income offices around the country.

I’ll never forget talking with an elderly woman with a major disability who had been sleeping in bus shelters off and on for a year, rejected yet again by Work & Income for any help with housing … or a young mother with a baby who was told by staff that boarding houses were too dangerous for her, so she and her child would have to sleep in the park again that night. 

In the years since there have been countless stories of homeless people being denied assistance, or of being forced to leave their homes by state inaction, ignorance or law changes aimed at evicting people from state houses even when they’ll end up on the street as a result.

Beneficiary advocacy groups like Auckland Action Against Poverty and many other frontline community organisations spend their inadequately resourced lives helping a fraction of those in need secure what they’re entitled to in law. Most people who are turned away at the counter for housing or urgent income assistance have nowhere to go for advocacy help. Day to day suffering deepens while most of New Zealand remains oblivious, with Māori, Pasifika people, sole parent families and people with illness and disabilities disproportionately impacted. 

It’s almost time for Budget 2018 and this is the moment when every lobby group and commentator in the country is writing their wish list. I’ve got a huge one, across many sectors, but I’m not going to waste your time or mine with a full manifesto. Instead I’d like to suggest just a few things the Government could do in the areas of welfare and homelessness which would put some steel into those promises of kindness.

Welfare

  • Immediately repeal the s70A sanction which means that over 13,000 women and 17,000 children endure reduced incomes each week because the child’s father is not named, often for the most sensitive and traumatic of reasons. Labour promised to do this pre-election; there is no reason to delay this any further.  Work & Income should also immediately repay the money owed to those who have had the deduction made falsely, as in this recent case.  
  • Dump National’s Social Security Rewrite legislation currently before Parliament, then wait to write new law until the Expert Advisory group on Welfare reports back, rather than passing this shonky law first, then look to patch things up afterwards. It would be far better to start afresh with a fair and streamlined bill incorporating compassion and the original 1930s idea of a welfare safety net at its heart.
  • Ensure the same advisory group is made up of competent people, including those with the ability to challenge the status quo, and resource it well enough so that it can report back within three months. Major law change is needed, fast, to undo the damage being done daily.
  • Resource training – and decent pay and working conditions -  for Work and Income staff so that the culture change now being expressed from the top of the political system can be transferred in the most positive way possible to all employees. And how about transforming the work of all those security guards into a kind of concierge system aimed at gently helping people when they come in for assistance rather than creating an atmosphere of aggression and suspicion at the door?

Homelessness

  • Transfer the housing allocation functions of MSD back to an arm of the Housing and Urban Development Ministry, staffed by people who use empathy, flexibility and a mandate to meet real need, now, as a starting point.
  • Open all livable empty state houses to occupation now, while ramping up the invitation to other house owners to make homes available. Initiate culture change at HNZC so that ridiculous situations like the rejection of a rental home because it was built before 2000 no longer arise.    
  • Lift resourcing for emergency, transitional and longterm community and tangata whenua housing providers to far more realistic levels, not just in major urban centres but in rural and provincial areas too, so that they can play a much greater role in meeting local need.  
  • Announce legislation which would ensure the statutory right to decent, safe and secure accommodation, backed by an urgent, large scale government-backed state housing build and acquisition programme.

These are just starting points for a shift in how we a country view and treat those who have least in our society. Yes – everything costs – but all governments can choose their own priorities, and make choices like whether to continue with the Budget Responsibility Rules or not. And there are some small, low-cost gestures that mean a lot too. It is going to be very interesting to see how the new kindness initiative plays out at Work and Income offices this winter.

 

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