Fran O'Sullivan: Bennett knows about life on Struggle St

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Political opponents are digging into Paula Bennett's backstory to find ammunition to label her as a hypocrite over new benefit rules. Picture / Natalie Slade
Political opponents are digging into Paula Bennett's backstory to find ammunition to label her as a hypocrite over new benefit rules. Picture / Natalie Slade

Minister who was solo mum has to convince today's DPB counterparts they should turn a negative into a positive

Even in 1988, there would not have been many 19-year-olds who would have had the gumption. Paula Bennett looks like she could have walked straight off the set of Outrageous Fortune. Out in West Auckland, they know her as Paula Benefit - the lady who basically rules Winz.

Her leopard-skin car is unmistakable.

Bennett's backstory is compelling. From solo mother to Cabinet minister, it's no wonder John Key made her his political poster-girl for welfare reform.

But would Bennett be sitting where she is today if she had been required to make herself available for part-time work when her own child reached 5?

Sure as hell, she would not have gained a tertiary education if, for instance, she had got pregnant again while still on the domestic purposes benefit and had another child.

If that had occurred, under the rules she has just outlined in her capacity as Social Development Minister, she would have been forced to make herself available for work one year after that child's birth.

This is the fundamental point that Bennett needs to get across when she tries to persuade other young women that "having another baby on the DPB" will fundamentally make it harder for them in the long run as they will basically be punished.

And that if they are smart, they can - like her - turn a negative period in their life into a positive.

Naturally, her political opponents are digging into her backstory to find ammunition to label her as a hypocrite.

My sense is that Bennett always knew how to work the system to her advantage - and good for her. Let's face it, at the time she went on to the domestic purposes benefit in 1986, knowing how to rort the system was a national sport.

Kiwis got away with claiming dubious tax deductions back then. Few paid a top tax rate that was onerous. Even the partially state-owned Bank of New Zealand was a shareholder in a tax dodge designer company that ensured the New Zealand exchequer lost out in millions of tax revenue that should have been paid by our companies.

That's how it was.

Yes it is true that like her boss John Key, Bennett knows a good deal about what it is like to live on Struggle St.

At just 17, she gave birth to her only child, a daughter she named Ana. Just two years later, she got a Housing Corporation loan to buy a $56,000 house in Taupo. All of this while on the domestic purposes benefit.

Even in 1988, there would not have been many 19-year-olds who would have had the gumption to do this. Mortgage payments would have been onerous. It is no wonder she moved back into the workforce for a while to try and get on top of the interest payments before shifting to Auckland. Bennett then dipped in and out of work (and on and off the DPB) until she knuckled down and took herself off to Massey University to study social work (by then she was 25).

If she had been born 15 to 20 years earlier, she would have been one of hundreds of teenagers who fell pregnant, came under strong societal pressure to "go up the line", give birth, put their babies up for adoption, then arrive back home again after an unexplained absence at "Aunty Beth's".

That was the reality for teenage mothers before the introduction of the DPB in 1974.

Bennett was also fortunate in getting a training allowance to go to university when her daughter was 8. Her backstory suggests that she was still on a benefit while studying.

I don't begrudge her that at all.

I did the same myself 20 years earlier. I went on to the quaintly named "emergency unemployment benefit" when my husband had long periods in hospital and could no longer look after our son while I worked. The emergency unemployment benefit was available to me because I was the family breadwinner. The DPB (and all its connotations) was at that stage reserved for women who were solo mothers either through having a child on their own or by leaving their marriages or relationships - as lots in fact did in an era of rising feminist consciousness where it became popular not to stay in a rocky relationship simply for the good of the children.

Once the state stepped in and financially underwrote the "get out of home" option, it was no wonder that "going on the DPB" evolved into a sinkhole for the Government's own finances.

For many people, being forced to "go on to a benefit" sucks. I hated having the state poking its nose into my life.

The figures show most of those on a DPB feel exactly like that.

Bennett's "get tough" approach signals it is no longer a career choice.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

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