Number on benefits drops, reaction mixed

At least 10,000 fewer people are now on a benefit compared with last year, new quarterly figures show.

The figures were released as the third and largest wave of welfare reforms were rolled out by the Government yesterday, although the reduction is being credited to the previous changes.

The latest reforms include the reduction of the number of benefits from seven to three, compulsory drug-testing for beneficiaries when required by potential employers, increased healthcare obligations for beneficiaries with young children, and an increased focus on getting people into jobs.

Almost 130,000 people including sickness beneficiaries, sole parents and widows without children under 14 have been put on a new Jobseekers benefit which puts more onus on them to find work.

The changes have met a mixed reception, with some groups saying they are about pushing beneficiaries off the books and increasing the burden on community service providers, and others that the changes give people more help to get back on their feet.

The changes also introduce potential sanctions because beneficiaries who fail to comply with the new requirements can have their benefits reduced or cut.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said today there are now 309,782 people on a benefit compared with 320,041 last year.

The changes were largely the result of the previously-enforced changes rather than yesterday's, she said.

"That's a reduction of more than 10,000 on welfare over the past 12 months and I am particularly pleased that 5600 of them are sole parents," she said.

Of the new benefits, 128,608 people are on the Jobseeker Support benefit, 82,897 are on Sole Parent Support and 91,862 on the Supported Living Payment for those with severe health conditions or disabilities or those caring for people who need significant care.

There are also almost 1200 young people on the youth and young-parent benefits which were introduced last year.

Bennett said the largest reduction in benefit numbers applied to the Sole Parent Support category, which saw more than 1500 sole parents come off the benefit in the quarter to June and more than 5600 come off in a year.

More than 7300 people came off the DPB for sole parents - the Sole Parent Support's equivalent benefit under the old system, in the year to June.

Under the new system, sole parents must find part-time work when their youngest child turns five and fulltime work then they turn 14.

The changes sparked protests in front of three Auckland Work and Income offices by Auckland Action Against Poverty protesters yesterday who said the moves were about "cutting costs by pushing vulnerable people off the books" rather than getting them into decent jobs.

Other opponents, including Labour's Jacinda Ardern, said it penalised young mothers trying to improve their lives through tertiary study because jobs allocated by the ministry, however menial, took precedence.

She was already aware of cases where mothers had to forego their study and it was locking them into a position with fewer opportunities to improve their circumstances.

Others said the changes reinforced the perception that beneficiaries were bad parents and drug abusers, that the changes were a breach of human rights and that beneficiaries would be made to go without.

The Grandparents Raising Grandchildren group yesterday said grandparents who were fulltime carers were also receiving letters from Work and Income saying they needed to make an appointment to discuss work obligations.

The changes also mean beneficiaries must undergo drug tests if required by potential employers or face sanctions, as can beneficiaries with warrants out for their arrest who refuse to hand themselves in to police.

There is also an increased focus on hardcore beneficiaries and those seen as at risk of long-term welfare dependence. They will receive more targeted help from Work and Income case managers to try and overcome barriers to employment and get them into jobs.