2 May 2018

Removing the conditions on welfare works

9:17 am on 2 May 2018

Welfare without conditions works, but it’s a hard road mate to get people to believe it. 


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Photo: Supplied

Last week, RNZ reported that a solo mother of three’s benefit was cut off because she went on two Tinder dates. It later emerged that Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) had acted on a false tip-off from a member of the public. Her benefit was cut off without any investigation into the false claim that she was living with a man, and was working. 

New Zealand law means people receiving a benefit (including disability support) may no longer be entitled to their own stream of income if they are in a de-facto relationship.

The problem that the case the RNZ story highlights, is the fact that what constitutes a de-facto relationship under welfare law in New Zealand is entirely up to the “chief executive” to decide.  

In effect, this means the it frequently comes down to individual case managers within WINZ to decide if you are in a relationship akin to marriage or not. If you are, WINZ can pay you less or stop payments altogether. 

It doesn’t take a psychologist to see the behavioural incentives that are at play here; For staff at WINZ it could mean a propensity to label what are casual arrangements between people as “de-facto relationships”. For welfare recipients, it could mean moving with children into new living arrangements before everyone is comfortable. 

Yet, a case manager at WINZ can essentially make a decision that will determine the course and nature of a person’s relationship. That is some deep involvement people in government have in constructing other people’s lives. 

In contrast to welfare law, the Property (Relationships) Act has specific criteria to determine whether or not a couple is in a de-facto relationship. One of these criteria is the couple’s degree of financial commitment to each other. Generally speaking, people must have lived together, while meeting these other criteria, for three years before their relationship is likely considered to be ‘de facto’.

What if we were to make the relationship conditions on welfare more consistent with other laws? What if we were to take this even further, by removing many of the conditions on all welfare (not just on Superannuation, which is our only near condition-free welfare payment)?

Removing the conditions on welfare works

There is a truck load of data showing that when there are few or no conditions placed on people living on insufficient incomes and receiving income support, the outcomes are very positive. Why? Because most of us don’t actually want to live on insufficient incomes. Yet if the level of support we get is barely enough to scrape by on, we have very limited capacity to thrive. Insufficient financial and other support (which harsh benefit conditions leads to) limits people’s choices and ability to overcome their situation. They cannot upskill easily, they must take work that is low paid and precarious, or get into relationships they may not be comfortable or even safe in. 

For parents of young children especially, removing the conditions on welfare gives them the space to optimise their parenting. Removing stress and punitive conditions gives parents more cognitive bandwidth, more time and more energy to carry out the key job of parenting - helping children build strong brains and immune systems through lots of engaging, warm interactions and experiences. In the two years I spent researching how best to improve outcomes for families and children in poverty, the power of unconditionality to build strong thriving families and children surprised even me.

I am thrilled that the government is investigating removing the punitive conditions from welfare. But it will be an uphill battle, because I know many people just don’t believe the facts.

Our stories about people without enough are powerfully corrosive

The reason people do not believe the facts, and why comments like those from Paula Bennett resonate with people, is because they draw on powerful cultural narratives, or core stories, about how poverty happens.These stories frame poverty as an individual weakness, experienced by untrustworthy people. They overlook the structural and systemic causes. They fail to see the good that is innate in people and their desire to thrive.

Research in the UK shows that there is a significant gap between the public’s stories about how people become poor, and what experts like myself know are the causes and solutions.

And politicians are subject to these same narratives. It is hard to disentangle yourself from cultural norms - politicians believe them, sometimes without even knowing it. Or they may simply be subject to, and have to act upon, the beliefs of the public. I must have believed such stories too, to have been surprised by the findings of my own research. 

Child Poverty Action Group’s research into attitudes on child poverty found that 50 percent of New Zealanders believed child poverty to be caused by the sorts of individual issues these corrosive narratives would have us believe. 

Does this mean we should give up on our facts?

Changing hearts and minds with better stories

The good news is that people are complex - we tend to hold any number of conflicting beliefs at one time. People may be influenced by the loudest narratives, but they also understand there are systemic issues at play, that we have not shaped the economy to act in everyone’s best interests. Most people can empathise with parents wanting the best for their children and being overcome by unaffordable housing, awful living conditions, low paid work and a harsh benefit system. 

We need to find ways to engage with people’s helpful beliefs. To effectively construct new core stories or cultural narratives about what causes poverty and what works. It is this work that will help close the gap between the public stories and experts’ knowledge. It does take time and good research to figure out the best ways to do this (the science of storytelling we call it). 

It is time and energy well invested.

Dr Jess Berentson Shaw is co-director of The Workshop.