Free birth control for beneficiaries

By Claire Trevett, Herald Online staff

The package is aimed at supporting beneficiaries to get into training or work. Photo / Thinkstock
The package is aimed at supporting beneficiaries to get into training or work. Photo / Thinkstock

Women on benefits - including teenagers and the daughters of beneficiaries - will be offered free long-term contraception as part of a $287.5 million Budget package for the Government's welfare reforms.

But critics say the measure borders on state control of women's reproductive choices.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett and Prime Minister John Key announced the package yesterday, aimed at supporting beneficiaries to get into training or work.

It includes $1 million to pay for long-term contraception measures such as implants or intra-uterine devices.

The payment for contraception will be offered to teenagers on benefits from July. From October, it will be offered to all women on benefits, and their daughters aged 16 to 19.

Yesterday, Ms Bennett said the funding for the reforms would be heavily targeted at youth and teen parents, who were most at risk of staying on benefits long term and having more children while on welfare.

The reforms include a requirement for those who have another child while on a benefit to look for work when that baby is 1, rather than wait until he or she is 5.

Ms Bennett said given that the Government was introducing penalties for those who had further children while on a benefit, it needed to ensure there was better access to contraception.

"We certainly have concerns about children being born to those on welfare and we see the access to contraception as being a barrier, particularly the cost around it."

She said it would be voluntary.

STATE-CONTROL OF WOMEN'S BODIES - CRITICS

However, Sue Bradford of the Auckland Action Against Poverty Group said the measure bordered on state-control of women's reproductive choices. The former Green MP said although it was billed as voluntary, there was a power imbalance between beneficiaries and case managers, who were under new pressure to get people back into work.

"My fear is that they will be pressured and intimidated into going along to the appointment for contraception. There are many in the church and community groups who believe that the state should not play a role in women's reproductive lives."

Greens co-leader Metiria Turei agreed, telling Newstalk ZB this morning providing free contraception is not the role of the state.

She questioned whether the initiative would be as voluntary as the Government has promised.

"Any experience with the welfare system will tell you that staff will be encouraged to encourage women to take up the injection or IUD or similar, and there will be pressure on these young women to do that."

Rebecca Occleston, from the Beneficiary Advisory Service in Christchurch, told Radio New Zealand it was "insulting" the way beneficiaries were being targeted.

"I think they are putting it in a way that implies that people on benefits are having children deliberately, so here, have some contraception, that will stop the problem.

"I think that is a bit simplified."

Ms Occlestone said people on lower incomes also struggled to afford some contraception options.

"I think contraception should be free, or affordable, for everybody who wants or needs it," she said.

"I think if it wasn't worded in such an offensive way then it would probably be quite a good programme.

Pharmac already funds several contraceptive devices, including one brand of implant and IUDs, but Ms Bennett said for some women there was a cost to put in the devices or they could not use the approved options for medical reasons.

"We'll pay for the doctor's visit and the cost of the contraceptive itself where the cost is not fully funded by Pharmac."

TARGETING TEEN PARENTS? NO APOLOGY, SAYS BENNETT

Ms Bennett said she made no apology for targeting teen parents.

"Under the old system, 16- to 18-year-old teen parents were handed a sum of money every week and left to get on with it. This will change."

Yesterday's $287.5 million is part of the expected $520 million cost of reforms over the next four years that will impose more stringent work-testing requirements on most beneficiaries. The cost is about half of the expected savings from the reforms, estimated at $1 billion.

It includes $80 million for early childhood education and childcare assistance payments, $55.1 million for 155 Work and Income staff dedicated to support people back into work, and $148.8 million for youth services.

The Prime Minister said the Government had been upfront about the costs of its reforms, but said it was vital to support beneficiaries into work.

Youth and solo parents are the target of the first tranche of reforms.

From July, young people must be in training or education. Their essential costs such as rent and power will be paid directly by Work and Income and, other than a small allowance, their benefit will be loaded onto a payment card which can be used only to buy necessities such as groceries.

From October, solo parents will have to look for part-time work when their youngest child is 5 and full-time work when he or she is 14.

About $81.5 million will be new spending, but the rest will come from "reprioritised" funding from within the Ministry of Social Development.

Ms Bennett said some of the money came from underspending in other areas and some had been brought forward from allocations for future years.

Legislation to make the changes for the first stage is before Parliament.

The second raft of changes - which will merge benefit types into three main categories, including Job Seeker Support for the unemployed, solo parents and sickness and invalids beneficiaries - will be funded in next year's Budget.

- NZ Herald

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