Moves to get sole parents off benefits

LUCY TOWNEND
Last updated 12:00 12/06/2014
Study
MURRAY WILSON/FAIRFAX NZ

MOTIVATED: Massey University third-year student Lizi Guest, 23, with her daughter Amelia, 2. Guest welcomes the Government's announcement that changes will encourage sole parents into higher study.

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A helping hand for sole parents wanting to study has been met with skepticism by student leaders who say the stigma and stumbling blocks remain.

Up to $24 million will be poured into three policy changes over the next four years aimed at helping sole parents off the benefit and into study.

The Government announced it is aligning some of its social services systems in order to lift people's skills and reduce the number of beneficiaries.

The changes will mean sole parents become eligible for the accommodation supplement instead of the accommodation benefit.

Among other changes, student parents outside of the study semester will not be stopped from receiving voluntary arrangements for child support. The stand-down period when transitioning from a student during semester to a job seeker during the summer will be removed.

Association of Students at UCOL president Miranda Orpin said the Government could have gone further.

"These changes will ease a few headaches around study and breaks, but they are small changes and they need to be treated as such," she said.

"It's like strapping an injury, this gives some small amount of added support, but it doesn't fix the problem."

Sole parents faced more challenges in education than your average undergraduate, including juggling study time with the responsibilities of raising a child, and added academic and financial pressures, she said.

Classes were scheduled on the assumption that students could conform to the timetable with no other commitments, but parents couldn't.

"Children throw this concept out of the water, which means that many students will have to choose between caring for their child and attending class," Orpin said.

"There is a feeling that parents should not be students and the current rules almost punish sole parents for studying, for bettering themselves and their children.

"I hope that these changes result in a paradigm shift to reflect the value of sole parent students, because what better way to teach your children the value of education than to lead by example?"

Massey University Students' Association president Linsey Higgins said the changes were a political "lolly scramble" and had the wrong focus.

"The emphasis seems to be getting people off of benefits instead of actually getting them into study, because it does looks better [for the Government]."

She said solo parents may be pushed into study when they weren't ready in a bid to lose the stigma of being a beneficiary and instead have support through schemes like student allowances, which were more socially acceptable.

Minister for Tertiary Education Steven Joyce said it made sense to invest in education for sole parents.

"We know that people with qualifications have better life outcomes - they are more likely to be employed and earn more, to live longer, and to be happier and healthier."

SEEING THE BENEFIT OF BETTER EDUCATION

Solo mum Lizi Guest can't wait to shake the stigma of being a beneficiary.

The Massey University third-year student was studying a public relations degree when she became pregnant with her daughter Amelia, now 2.

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"I wouldn't change her for the world, she's the best thing ever," Guest, 23, said.

"But having a baby at 20, half-way through your degree and with Amelia's dad not being around, does makes life harder."

After struggling with study, being a solo mum and money woes, Guest found work. She spent more than a year in a high-paying communications job, but went back to university to "tick it off ".

She changed jobs, cut her hours, because secondary tax was crippling, and applied for sole parent support.

She now earns $549 a week after tax through Work and Income, IRD and a 14-hour part-time job. After paying rent, food, daycare costs and other bills, she has less than $50 to live off a week.

Guest said yesterday's news just shifted figures from one ministry to another, and did not boost support for sole parents. But shaking the stigma of being on a benefit and being labelled a student was a bonus. "My family has been great but they're not in a position to financially support me any more than occasionally helping with groceries.

"Which is why I don't feel bad for being on the benefit, because they pay quite high taxes - it's a three-year cash-in and then I'm out, paying my taxes towards it and that's what the social services system is there for, when people need financial help.

"I am studying for the express purpose of knowing I am going to earn more when I finish, when I'm off the benefit, than I currently get."

- Manawatu Standard

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