24 Oct 2022

Cost-of-living crisis: Woman switches to diet shakes to cut grocery bill

9:28 am on 24 October 2022

By Susan Edmunds of Stuff

NELSON, NEW ZEALAND, JULY 19, 2018: Unidentified customers examine sale goods in a supermarket.

Photo: 123rf.com

Mother-of-three Anahera and her husband are switching to diet shakes to help cut their food bill, because, she says, they do not qualify for enough government support.

Her husband works 40 or 50 hours a week as a labourer, and earns about $1000 a week after tax.

A couple with children must earn no more than $969 a week between them, before tax, to qualify for any Jobseeker Support.

Anahera, who does not want to be identified, says she has always had mental health issues and is currently waiting for ACC to approve more counselling.

"But my mental health issues make it extremely hard to function 'normally' daily, as well as having psoriasis, arthritis and having pain in most joints daily.

"All we are entitled to weekly is the accommodation supplement. Our rent is $700 a week with $15 for water on top as we can't afford to not be in credit as we can't afford extra bills. According to Work and Income, my husband earns too much for me to be getting any kind of sickness benefit or any benefit."

She said the welfare system had not kept up with the increasing cost of living.

"Everything apart from our income is rising. We pick and choose between food and petrol. We have just started our two-shakes-a-day diet to lose weight and try and make groceries cheaper. As long as our kids have food, we are OK, but it's still tough."

She said she had been meant to be starting a new job, but she could not afford to take a day off if one of the kids was sick, and daycare fees made it hard to work.

Another woman, Sarah, said she had been surprised to find that her boyfriend's income meant she could not get help. She had just finished post-graduate study and was looking for work at the time. She and her partner lived with flatmates.

"I desperately needed money to make sure I could still pay the bills.

"The part that upset me the most was that they hinted that if I were to break up with my boyfriend I could come back in the next day and access more funds. We hadn't been going out that long, not even a year - the whole thing felt sordid."

She said she had thought of herself as financially independent from her partner at that stage. "It's hard to know where to draw the line, though. Is it after you've been with a partner for a certain amount of time? Do there need to be kids involved? I think it's potentially much harder on women, who generally earn less than men."

It is something that Child Poverty Action Group spokesperson associate professor Susan St John has been worried about for some time.

She said it was "painfully clear" that the welfare system of benefits was no longer fit for purpose.

"The relationship basis of welfare payments is in desperate need of modernisation," she said when she gave the Sir Owen Woodhouse Memorial Lecture in 2019.

"Many do not get benefits if their partner is earning and the couple rate of benefit is miserably low. Marital status as determined by Work and Income penalises sole parents who try to re-partner."

St John said that the issue had become more apparent as people lost their jobs during the pandemic.

"Instead of fixing the welfare system, we get social insurance," she said.

The government has proposed an income insurance scheme that would pay out 80 percent of a person's normal salary for up to six months if they were to lose their job.

"That's not going to make anyone who is currently disadvantaged any better off at all," St John said. "It will only apply in future as people get an entitlement under the scheme. Men in high-paid jobs will get the most."

She said expecting couples to rely on each other was an outdated approach. "That couply kind of relationship where everything is shared - modern relationships are not conforming to that."

If a relationship test was used, it should be whether a couple would be captured by relationship property rules, she said. This applies to people who are married or in a civil union, or who have been living together for three years.

"The tax system is based on the individual, as is ACC and NZ Super but yet with the welfare system we're totally bound to this idea that you've got to look after each other and your family is the one you turn to. There are lots of things like that build into the system and we are quite blind to seeing the biases ... it's 2022 but we are still not really talking about 21st century family arrangements."

The Ministry of Social Development's acting general manager for welfare system and income support Polly Vowles said it was a long-standing element of the system that the family was the unit of entitlement for support.

"The family is defined as adults - either single or in a couple - and dependent children. This unit is used because it is generally accepted that families are financially interdependent - they will share resources to support each other.

"Financial support in the welfare system is targeted to those most in need. Because of that, it is reasonable to take into account the resources of the family to assess a person's need for financial support from the state.

"Household income is different to family income - households may contain multiple families, and these are generally not taken into account for financial support. If all welfare financial support were individualised this would result in many payments going to higher-income families and this would increase the overall cost of the welfare system significantly. The long-term welfare overhaul work programme will consider whether the unit of entitlement in the welfare system is still fit-for-purpose."

- This story was first published on Stuff.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs