Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Welfare shakeup: What it means for parents

The Herald marks the final stage of the Government's welfare reforms, which come into force today, with a three-part investigation into how the changes are affecting people's lives in one community. Today Simon Collins reports on how sole parents are faring.

Simona Watkinson is sole carer for her 19-month-old son, Griffen, and struggles on her benefit. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Simona Watkinson is sole carer for her 19-month-old son, Griffen, and struggles on her benefit. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Sole parents have got a clear message from today's welfare upheaval - planning to go back to work has to start from the moment a baby is born.

Legally, sole parents have only been required since last October to look for work part-time when their youngest child turns 5 and fulltime when that child turns 14.

Those with children under 5 have been required to "take all steps that are reasonably practicable in his or her particular circumstances to prepare for employment" such as training, work experience and attending seminars.

But in practice, every sole parent interviewed in Papakura in the past three weeks already feels under pressure to look for work. That pressure will increase from today for those with no children under 14 who will come under "intensive case management" with a personal case manager to help them find work.

Papakura - which has the highest welfare dependency rate in Auckland - was already one of 24 Work and Income sites in a trial of intensive case management of 10,000 beneficiaries since last October.

Work and Income says 3516 of them have already found work.

In the past year up to the end of May, Papakura's benefit tally fell by 8 per cent.

Sole parents make up almost half (2520) of the 5572 Papakura people on the four main benefits, compared with a third nationally. And increased attention from Work and Income has been genuinely helpful for some.

Merv Vickery, a solo dad with a 17-year-old son, was on a benefit for two years fighting an unfair dismissal case against his previous employer, a car wrecker. He won but found no other employer wanted to know him.

He says Work and Income "got tougher as time went on".

"It got to the point where I had to go in for a job-search interview every six weeks, and then it changed to every four weeks."

Every time he had to take in proof of the jobs he had applied for. Finally, four months ago, the agency found him a fulltime job delivering whiteware for Noel Leeming.

Sharon, a sole parent whose youngest son has just turned 14, has a 25-hours-a-week school-term job as a teacher aide but gets a benefit in the holidays and is being pressured to find fulltime work. She is reluctant to take on more hours on weekdays.

"My youngest is now a teenager. He's at that impressionable age where he could go astray," she says.

"But from July 15 if they say I'm not earning enough, my suggestion would be that I'll find a job in the weekend. He would have to go to my niece's place. It's different in the weekend because there's family that's available, his dad sees him at the weekends."

Danielle Devcich, who has been on a benefit with her 6-year-old son since her relationship broke up in January, started a six-month computing course three weeks ago after Work and Income threatened to cut her benefit a second time for not attending a seminar. Enrolling in the course saved her benefit.

"It has been all right for me because I had always planned on not being on the benefit forever. It rushed me along a little bit, I suppose."

Mary Smith, who runs Papakura's St Vincent de Paul foodbank, sees people redoubling efforts to find work. "The other day I had a lady in who was panicking because in July things are going to change and she's trying to get a job," she says.

Papakura Budget Service manager Denise Smith says staff at the local Work and Income office are "very proactive. The place is buzzing when you go in because they are running all these seminars. The changes have motivated a lot of people. They are learning to budget because that is something they have to do. We are seeing a lot of people becoming more independent."

Papakura Family Service Centre manager Louise Belcher sees unemployment causing a vicious cycle with people having babies simply because they have nothing else in their lives. "I can see that the Government is trying to break the cycle," she says.

But for many, it's not easy. Mary Smith says many people lack the qualifications they need to get jobs.

Judy Nicholls, a solo mum with a 9-year-old child, says she can't get work because she was convicted of defrauding Work and Income of $15,000 - an over-payment she says was the agency's fault, not hers.

Tania Kauri of the Gateway Community Trust worries about the effects on children if sole parents are forced into work too soon.

"A number of families that we work with get all these dysfunctional issues from these kids because Mum and Dad have to go and work," she warns.

Brendon Harrison, a solo dad with children aged 8 and 6, is a qualified roofer, spraypainter, builder and landscaper but can't get a job within school hours.

"Once you say to them I can work 9 to 2.30, they are sort of 'Nah, we can't help you'," he says.

Many don't have transport. Mrs Belcher says: "Half of them don't have cars that work."

Meanwhile, the penalties for failing to look for work are biting. Daisy Savage, a solo mum with boys aged 14 and 10, has worked off and on at Griffin's biscuit factory and other jobs since going on the benefit 10 years ago, but her benefit was cut a month ago because she failed to attend a seminar.

She says she was at Work and Income that day for a driving course, approached a staff member about a job on the jobs board, and was put straight into another seminar when the staff member saw she had missed the earlier one.

Her benefit was restored after it was cut, but the hiccup cost her $92 in bank dishonour fees because there was no money to cover her automatic payments. She had no money to get to her job interview either, and had to go back to Work and Income for a food grant.

One beneficiary's success is another's heartache

There was applause all round at Work and Income when a beneficiary got a job - but the cheering only made Simona Watkinson feel worse.

Despite being a solo mum for son Griffen, aged 19 months, Ms Watkinson works part-time at a local paint shop where she was employed before she had the baby.

But the hours are variable and usually bring in only about $50 a week, so she needs a top-up from the domestic purposes benefit.

When Work and Income wrote to her about work, before her son's first birthday, she felt affronted.

"They pretty much said, why are you not getting a job?" she said.

"I went in there guns blazing: 'I don't have anyone else to offer me support, can you explain why you sent it?'

"They said everyone gets the letter."

When her old boss offered her the part-time job, she went back to Work and Income to tell them.

"They said to me, 'Is it fulltime?"' she says.

"I said, 'No way, you've got to be kidding me, I can't go for a fulltime job yet.'

"To which the receptionist said, 'There's a few of us here who have children that age and we work fulltime.

"I said, 'You may have the support that you require. I don't.'

"As I was sitting there letting them know about the job, they rang a bell. This girl had got a fulltime job, and everyone stopped and clapped."

Ms Watkinson doesn't smoke, drink or take drugs. She has no car and gets around by walking or public transport.

But when she requested a food grant after getting an unexpected bill, the receptionist said she had just been paid her benefit and that should have been enough.

"She said, 'Everyone's got to feed their kids, how come you've spent it all?"' Ms Watkinson says.

"There was a big kerfuffle. I ended up getting really upset and stomping out, I felt so degraded the way they had spoken to me."

A Work and Income spokesman says Ms Watkinson is not required to look for part-time work until her son turns 5. She got a $120 food grant last November but a second grant "could not be justified as it was two days after her previous application".

South Auckland town ripe to test new rules on work

"Papakura has changed," says Simona Watkinson.

"When I was growing up it was a sleepy little town. Now I wouldn't feel safe up town on my own."

The town of 47,600 people has surpassed the traditional state housing estates of Mangere and Otara as the part of Auckland with the highest proportion of welfare dependency - 18.9 per cent of people aged 18 to 64, just ahead of Manurewa (18.7 per cent) and Mangere-Otahuhu (17.5 per cent).

It's nowhere near Kawerau, where a third of working-aged adults are on welfare, but Papakura has been chosen for this investigation into the effects of welfare changes because there simply aren't any jobs for most beneficiaries to move into in Kawerau or most of the other places in the top eight for welfare.

Papakura is part of our biggest job market, Auckland. If reform will work anywhere, it should work here.

Inga Nu'u, who co-ordinates Papakura's Citizens Advice Bureau, says farmers who used to shop there have moved their custom to Pukekohe as housing has spread around Papakura. The new Southgate shopping centre at the north end of town has also drawn business away. The Warehouse will move from Papakura to Southgate this year. Housing NZ closed in Papakura on May 31.

Papakura's council was merged into the new Auckland Super City in 2010. The Safer Papakura Trust, which took on unemployed people from Work and Income to clear graffiti, lost its contract last month to the bigger Manukau Beautification Trust.

"Papakura has declined over the years, very sadly," Mrs Nu'u says.

"Our main street now has more $2 shops. At least we still have Farmers and Postie."

But Papakura Local Board chairwoman Hine Joyce-Tahere says huge new housing estates west of the motorway and around Southgate will help bring new jobs to the area.

"We have some good employers here: Griffin's, Hume Pipes, Independent Liquor, Hunua Rd [quarry]," she says.

Quarry owner Stevenson Group is seeking resource consent to rezone 223ha around it for new industries which it says could employ 6900 people.

- NZ Herald

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