A Glenfield solo mother has been refused a food grant to feed her children because of tight new rules for hardship payments.
The 42-year-old mother of three, who has had to move twice to escape from a violent ex-husband, asked for a $106 food grant yesterday because she had unexpected costs when her stove broke down and she needed a new tyre to get a warrant and registration for her car.
Glenfield Work and Income manager Grant Clements turned her down under a new policy, introduced last September, that hardship grants cannot be paid more than twice in a year unless a beneficiary takes "reasonable steps to increase their income, reduce their costs or improve their financial management".
Her advocate, Pam Apera, said the mother could not work because of a muscle pain condition called fibromyalgia, had been to a budgeting agency, but had no way to reduce her costs.
She doesn't drink or smoke, has not had a haircut for two years and can't afford a computer for her children aged 17, 13 and 7.
"I own two pairs of pants and two tee-shirts. My one good bra broke the other week and I thought, what do I do?" the mother said.
Ms Apera, who has worked for Glenfield's Beneficiaries Advocacy and Information Service for 15 years, said she and other social agencies were seeing a record number of similar cases because of the new rules, combined with rising living costs.
"We are easily getting 20 phone calls a week enquiring about how to get food assistance. Three years ago it would have been three to five," she said.
"I have just had to fork out money from my own pocket so she could get food. This is the first time in my career that I have had to start doing that."
The mother, who asked to be called "Maree", receives a relatively high welfare income of $827.50 a week through a domestic purposes benefit (DPB), accommodation supplement, family tax credits, and disability allowances for herself and two of her children.
She has had longstanding physical and mental health problems which have recently been diagnosed as due in part to fibromyalgia, causing chronic pain. She had to stand during part of her interview with the Herald.
Two of her children have inherited her asthma and allergies and the family has total medication and other disability-related costs of $45.60 a week.
They pay $385 a week in rent, plus $35 in arrears for a rent payment missed when the 13-year-old needed a uniform to start college this year.
The power bill is normally $250 a month or $65 a week, but Maree is paying an extra $20 a week at present to catch up with higher bills caused by a leak in the hot water system last year.
"I have a landlord who doesn't repair things," she said. Her stove broke down two weeks ago and the landlord has not replaced it, forcing her to buy a microwave.
She spends $60 a week on petrol, partly because she has been referred to a specialist in Papakura for her fibromyalgia.
She is paying $38 a week back to Work and Income in multiple small amounts for past loans for various one-off costs. She also pays off $10 a week on fines incurred after she sold a car and the buyer did not register the ownership change.
She needs $200 a week for food, but that would mean spending $31.10 more than her income. So she regularly spends less on food - and has to cut food spending even more to meet any one-off costs.
She filled in a form setting out her budget for Work and Income early this year and spent an hour and a half with the agency yesterday, with Ms Apera, going over each item in her budget to seek the food grant. She has also applied for an invalid benefit, which is paid at a higher rate than the DPB.
Work and Income head Mike Smith said last night that the mother had received four hardship grants since September but her debts appeared to be still growing.
"We have asked [her] more than once to meet with us to work on a budget and agree some reasonable steps towards managing her finances. We want to help [her] live within her means, to break out of the debt cycle," he said. "To date, [she] has refused to discuss her budget and costs with us."
$827.50 - DPB, accommodation supplement, disability allowances, family tax credits
$385.00 - Rent
$35.00 - Rent arrears
$85.00 - Power
$60.00 - Petrol
$45.60 - Disability costs
$38.00 - Repayments to WINZ
$10.00 - Fines
$200.00 - Food