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Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Teen welfare hard for guinea pigs

New money system has downsides for many struggling young beneficiaries

Caelif Bishop's green card is loaded with money to buy food instead of the welfare benefit being paid solely in cash. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Caelif Bishop's green card is loaded with money to buy food instead of the welfare benefit being paid solely in cash. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Teenagers among the first "guinea pigs" for a new money management system for welfare say they are getting more than they need for food but not enough for transport, baby supplies and medical costs.

The new system, affecting about 1500 teens aged 16-17 and 1850 teen parents aged 16-18, pays only $50 a week in cash, with the rest either paid directly to landlords and creditors or loaded on to a green payment card for designated food stores.

Teenagers are being moved on gradually after an official start on August 20.

The Social Development Ministry said 529 teens without children and 559 teen parents were on the system by last Friday, with the rest due by December.

But already Billie-May Graham, 18, of Onehunga, is frustrated that her payment card is restricted to food stores and doesn't cover clothes and other needs for her baby son Ryder, 8 weeks.

"Being a solo mum, there are so many things you have to buy that won't be at the supermarket," she said.

Although she can buy nappies at a supermarket, they were "much cheaper" at Nappies For Less, which is not an approved supplier.

"What if I have to go to the doctor some weeks?" she asked. "What about my clothes?"

Manukau Urban Maori Authority social worker Kylie Urwin said she picked up teen parents in a van from all over South Auckland three days a week to attend courses at Manukau Institute of Technology because they could not afford bus fares.

In Morningside, a 17-year-old who rooms alone in a lodge, Caelif Bishop, said the new system gave him more on his payment card than he needed for food, but not enough in cash for bus fares.

Mr Bishop was mostly in Child, Youth and Family Service (CYFS) care from the age of 9 until he turned 17 last December.

After that he stayed with a friend and the friend's girlfriend in a garage on the Hibiscus Coast.

When the friend moved, Mr Bishop moved into the city, living on an independent youth benefit plus an accommodation supplement that paid $200 a week directly to the lodge for his rent and $105 in cash.

He economised on food so he could repay debts and pay bus fares to get to job interviews and visit his friends up the coast.

"I normally live on $25 a week," he said. In a typical week, he buys two packets of noodles, two loaves of bread, one packet of pasta and "maybe some sausages".

Under the new system, he will get only $50 a week in cash.

Some of the rest will go directly to pay off past traffic fines and debts, and he expects about $35-$50 a week will be loaded on to his "green card" to buy food - more than he needs.

He desperately wants a job and has tried every shop and business in his area. But it costs $1.90 for a bus fare into town or $10.50 to Whangaparaoa where he would prefer to work. That is more than he can afford out of $50.

"You might have enough for food to live on but you don't have enough to keep you happy," he said. "But the system is also giving us a push to get jobs so there are good and bad sides of it."

Friendly youth advisers make a big difference

Seventeen-year-old Shardae Talbot used to feel "stink" whenever she visited Work and Income. Now she loves to see the friendly adviser who has taken over her case.

Carmen Atama, who became her "personal adviser" two weeks ago, works out of a brightly decorated youth service centre in New Lynn run by Youth Horizons Trust, one of 43 local providers who have taken over managing youth payments since August 20.

"People like Carmen know how to deal with youth better than [Work and Income] case managers do," Ms Talbot said.

"She's really nice. She told me to let her know if I need extra help with anything."

In contrast, she hated going to Work and Income.

"They make you feel real stink, they make you beg for stuff," she said. "When I did go by myself I didn't get seen, so I had to go with my aunty."

Ms Talbot, like most of her classmates learning computing and employment skills at Target Education in Henderson, has been on the independent youth benefit because she and her mother have "clashed" since she was 13. Her mum still lives in Kaitaia but Ms Talbot boards with her aunty in West Auckland.

She has been getting $220 a week on the youth benefit with accommodation supplement, paying $200 a week in board to her aunty and taking only $20 in cash.

Her aunty pays for most of her expenses including bus fares to her course, so she may get more cash from the new youth payment which pays up to $50 in cash plus an extra $10 a week for staying in education for six months and another $10 a week once she has done a budgeting course.

Ms Atama is helping to set up the budgeting course.

Ms Talbot hopes she may also get help with other issues. "[Maybe] I could get counselling to get my relationship with my mum back."

Life in limbo where usual pathways lead nowhere

Manurewa youngster Douglas Graham has found himself shut out of every option for both education and work.

Douglas, 16, left Manurewa High School at the start of this year.

"They told me to go," he said.

His father Kevin Graham said: "At the last parent-teacher interview, his teacher thought he was ready to leave and go on to something else."

He enrolled in a course at Future Skills in Wiri.

"But they told me to leave because my English and maths was low," Douglas said.

"I just stay home, be bored, just stay in my room and look at the walls. I want to get a job."

His dad helped him to apply for a job at the local supermarket but he has had no reply.

He wants to join the army, but he can't do that until he is 17 and has at least English and maths to NCEA level one.

Finally, his dad heard through a friend at his table tennis club that the new youth service providers might be able to help.

He rang the Solomon Group, one of two South Auckland providers.

A "youth coach" there, Angela Tarawa, picked Douglas up and took him around to local courses.

"But they are all full. At this time of year they are only taking enrolments for next year," she said.

"There is a course we are going to look at next Thursday which picks up and drops off and has rolling intakes.

"It's sport and recreation, a 40-week course."

Ms Tarawa will also help Douglas to prepare a CV and practise interview techniques.

"Usually I get a group together and we go there for at least three to six hours a week," she said.

"I'm trying to get his course sorted first and then we can look at looking for part-time work."

On the web
youthservice.govt.nz

- NZ Herald

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