20 Feb 2024

Welfare crackdown will directly impact vulnerable youth, advocate says

10:29 am on 20 February 2024
Teenager sitting alone on bench on lake in the evening, looking at horizon and thinking about future. Unity with nature. Loneliness of youth. Psychological assistance to young people.

Generic image. Photo: 123RF

The government's crackdown on welfare recipients will directly affect young people experiencing homelessness, a youth development advocate says.

The Ministry of Social Development will begin "work check-ins" for jobseekers who have been on a benefit for at least six months, "particularly young people" to "make sure job seeker beneficiaries are taking appropriate steps to find employment and are receiving the right help".

Aaron Hendry, director of the youth development organisation Kick Back, said intensifying sanctions for young people would result in greater risks for those experiencing homelessness.

"We are particularly concerned about our young people who are currently experiencing homelessness.

"What these young people are going through is already traumatic. They are living impossibly difficult lives and are often just trying to survive day by day."

Hendry said the application of sanctions for vulnerable young people could drive them further away from the support and services they need.

"Young people on the benefit have often experienced trauma, are dealing with poverty, mental illness, addiction, and lack much needed community and parental support.

"More pressure and tougher sanctions risk pushing already vulnerable young people further away from the support they need, increasing the risks of homelessness, suicide, and leading to further marginalisation and desperation and for some pushing them towards crime and addiction as they search for a way to survive."

Kick Back director Aaron Hendry (file image). Photo:

Kick Back young leader Hārema said a tougher approach could affect the mental health of young vulnerable people.

"When you're already struggling, experiencing homelessness, have little family support, and then add more weight to that, the result is a person's mental health breaking down. [These government systems] have a lack of understanding around mental health."

Ben*, 19, has lived on the streets and experienced the welfare system.

He said tougher sanctions would punish young people and would not be effective in the long run.

"[This approach] will result in more crime, more chaos, more drug abuse, more people needing to survive.

"Supporting young people who don't have family support, providing the resources they need so they can survive, that's one of the most important things a society can do with their money."

Hendry said sanctions were a blunt instrument trying to solve a complex set of problems.

"Young people accessing welfare require love, not punishment. They require safe housing, good food, access to physical and mental health support, community, and access to opportunities."

Youth advocates feared the government's approach failed to understand the complex challenges young people were facing, he said.

"We can't simply come down on these young people, demanding personal responsibility of young people who have already been made highly vulnerable by our society, and as a result are suffering due to homelessness, poverty and mental illness, while at the same time ignoring our collective responsibility to care for, love, and support these kids.

"If we do, we risk causing greater suffering and pushing our young people further to the margins. And to be honest, these kids are already pretty far out there, there's only so far you can push before they fall off the other side."

National MP Nicola Willis

National's deputy leader and Minister of Finance Nicola Willis. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

National's deputy leader and Minister of Finance Nicola Willis told First Up they were seeing tens of thousands of more people on the Jobseeker benefit, while there are lots of job vacancies.

"We're very happy to be there for you need a welfare benefit, but we've got some expectations of you, too.

"You need need to turn up to interviews, you need to be work ready, if there is a job on offer you have to take it, and if you don't do your part of the bargain, you don't meet your obligations, then we will reserve the right to reduce your benefit payment."

She said, while there are rights, there are also responsibilities.

"We don't think it's actually a life for anyone to condemn them to long-term welfare dependency when they could - and should - be working."

*Name changed to protect privacy.

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