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Beneficiary groups say Labour government best bet for poor Kiwis

Claire Gray
Beneficiary Advisory Service's Claire Gray says change to the system is needed.  Laura Cunningham

A Christchurch beneficiary advocacy group is backing a Labour-led coalition to ease what it says is the "incredibly" harsh treatment of poorer Kiwis.

Before the election, both major political parties promised to help poorer Kiwis – National by lowering income tax and Labour by boosting benefit payments and overhauling the welfare system.

Christchurch’s Beneficiary Advocacy Service (BAS) says Labour is offering a better deal for lower income New Zealanders.

BAS spokeswoman Claire Gray said increasing benefit payments, which Labour had promised, was more important than cutting tax.  

"There’s some very harsh punitive measures taken against beneficiaries at the moment, and it’s making their lives very, very difficult."

She said former Greens co-leader Meteria Turei’s admission that she wrongly claimed a benefit while at university had given beneficiaries hope, but "that was pretty much smashed" when she was forced to resign as leader.

Gray said a Labour coalition offered the best outcome for beneficiaries. She was concerned that some beneficiaries were not receiving their full entitlements. 

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National, if it secures a fourth term, promises to spend $2 billion a year as part of its Family Income package, which is aimed at helping low income earners with high housing costs.

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley said its welfare reforms over the past nine years were a success, including the Child Hardship package introduced last year. 

Tolley said the package "substantially increased benefits for the first time in 43 years," with an increase of $25 a week for beneficiaries with dependent children. 

National’s tax decrease, scheduled for April, would leave $570 in the pockets of Kiwi earning $22,000 to $52,000 a year, while those above would get $1000 extra per year. 

Labour Social Development spokeswoman Carmel Sepuloni said National was failing beneficiaries. 

If Labour forms a government, it would give middle-income families an allowance of up to $2500 a year. Labour wanted to change the welfare system’s focus and make it less punitive. 

She said the welfare system was making people feel "less than human, intimidated and [that] they’re not getting access to things they’re entitled to."

Labour would focus on removing the stigma of getting a benefit and would introduce new training schemes to help people get back into work.

Christchurch City Missioner Matthew Mark said beneficiaries were ambivalent about who is going to form the next government. 

Some beneficiaries were aware they might get more money once a new government was formed, but any change caused anxiety for them. 

"When change is proposed that can be a really scary thing," he said. 

Mark said the benefit system’s foundations were OK, and while some change would be good,  Labour’s absolute refocus of the system was not necessarily needed. 

He said some beneficiaries did feel judged and stigmatised by Work and Income worker they dealt with. 

In June this year, just over 275,000 working New Zealander’s were receiving a benefit as their primary income.