Welfare payments are harder to live off than ever before, but at least they are still available for those who need them, a Tauranga social worker says.
New statistics from the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) show 11,485 Western Bay of Plenty residents were receiving benefits at the end of December - 353 more than during the previous quarter and 67 more than in December 2011.
Te Tuinga Whanau Support Services Trust social worker Jenna Young said although some new jobs had been created, there had also been more job losses.
"There's a lot of people that aren't skilled either.
"I struggle myself and I'm in full-time employment and a mum, so it's not just people on benefits [struggling]."
Benefits had not kept pace with inflation, Ms Young said.
Welfare was at least available for those who met entitlement criteria. However those beneficiaries who did not meet their work test obligations or were living in a relationship, were having benefits suspended, she said.
"It's the same with any employment, I suppose. If you're not going to do your job, then you're not going to be paid."
As of December, 339,095 people nationwide were receiving benefit, up 5.6 per cent on the previous quarter.
However, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said the number of people on benefits was at its lowest level since 2008.
Beneficiary numbers fell by nearly 12,000 year-on-year.
"But with 339,095 people on benefits in New Zealand, there is much more work to do."
New Zealand's unemployment rate is at 7.3 per cent - the highest level since June 1999.
Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei said a fall in the number of unemployment beneficiaries while unemployment itself was rising raised concerns about whether government welfare changes were preventing Kiwis getting the help they needed.
"It's unusual that at the same time the number of people who are out of work is rising, the number of people getting unemployment benefits is falling.
"It would be extremely concerning if many people who need help because they have lost their job are not getting help because of National's punitive welfare changes."
Work-testing has been introduced for domestic purposes beneficiaries, as have a raft of new obligations and management of benefits for youth and teenage parents.
Further reforms are before the social services committee that simplify the benefit system from seven to three: Jobseeker support, sole parent support for parents with children under 14, and supporting living payment for people significantly restricted by sickness.
The bill also requires jobseekers to be drug-free, and requires beneficiaries with children to immunise them and have toddlers enrolled in early childhood education.
The Treasury and the MSD have estimated that the number of beneficiaries could be cut from between 28,000 and 44,000 by 2016-17, saving between $992 million and $1.6 billion.
A June Cabinet paper released by the Treasury on December 19 said the variations were because of uncertainty of implementation, changes to delivery and eventual design details.
The Government spends $8 billion a year on welfare benefits.
Ms Bennett said in September an estimate based on the expected duration of all current beneficiaries showed the lifetime costs to be $78 billion.
Benefits in Western Bay of Plenty by the numbers
(Western Bay of Plenty figures made up of Greerton, Mount Maunganui, Tauranga and Tauranga Super Centre, Te Puke)
11,485 working-age (18-64 years) recipients of a main benefit.
1641 working-age recipients of an unemployment benefit.
4359 working-age recipients of a domestic purposes benefit.
2654 working-age recipients of a sickness benefit.
2362 working-age recipients of an invalid's benefit.September 2012
11,132 working-age recipients of a main benefit.
1203 working-age recipients of an unemployment benefit.
4347 working-age recipients of a domestic purposes benefit.
2568 working-age recipients of a sickness benefit.
2392 working-age recipients of an invalid's benefit.
11,418 working-age recipients of a main benefit.
1374 working-age recipients of an unemployment benefit.