Kim Fulton is a NZME. News Service regional reporter

Figures show more than $120 million given in advance benefit payments last year

Beneficiaries had 313,334 grants worth $127,756,265 approved last year, according to Ministry of Social Development figures. Photo / iStock
Beneficiaries had 313,334 grants worth $127,756,265 approved last year, according to Ministry of Social Development figures. Photo / iStock

Beneficiaries received more than $120 million in advance benefit payments last year for essential costs such as schooling and health care.

The Ministry of Social Development provided the advance payment to beneficiaries with immediate needs for essentials such as food, health costs, power and other costs.

In all, beneficiaries had 313,334 grants worth $127,756,265 approved last year, according to Ministry of Social Development figures.

The figures showed more than 26,000 grants were for medical and associated costs. More than 25,000 were for school and education costs, and more than 254,000 were for other emergency situations.

Salvation Army commanding officer Ralph Overbye said private finance companies often had high interest rates and penalties for non-payment which could increase the price of goods and took longer to pay off.

Advance payments were repaid directly from benefits so beneficiaries didn't need to worry whether they had enough available funds to meet payments, he said.

Mr Overbye said many advances were for things which others took for granted, such as a big power bill or clothing.

"It would be great if people did not have to go into debt for these essential things, however that is not always the reality for many of our clients."

Wanganui Budget Advisory Service co-ordinator Sandy Fage said more people were getting advances for power and rent arrears coming into winter.

School uniforms were another cost people sought advances for, said Ms Fage.

"As much as we say... you should know it's coming up and you should be saving, the reality is for many people on such a low income, to save up for that cost is just not going to happen."

Whangarei Citizens Advice Bureau co-ordinator Moea Armstrong said many beneficiaries were unaware the advances were available for essential things such as vehicle repairs, fridges, washing machines, televisions or lawn mowers.

"People are paying lawn people to come and mow their lawns because they're all so desperate to keep their rental accommodation looking spick and span for the landlord."

She said they might pay $20 a week for someone to mow their lawns.

"Whereas if they got an advance for a lawnmower, eventually, you know, it's going to pay itself off and they'll be better off."

Beneficiaries had 314,844 grants approved in 2014 and 306,618 in 2013, according to the Ministry of Social Development.

To qualify for the advance payment a client needed to have an immediate and essential need; meet hardship obligations including completing a budgeting activity; meet an income and asset test; and buy goods or services from a preferred supplier if an arrangement was in place.

Beneficiaries had 18,187 applications for advance payments declined last year.

Reasons included, "need can be met in another way", "not an emergency situation" and "not an economic purchase".

Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP) coordinator Alastair Russell said significant numbers of people were unaware they were eligible for advances. AAAP held events to help people get what they were entitled to.

It saw 700 people at an event in Mangere in April and turned away more than 800 or 900.

"Those people were coming there desperate to access advance payments in significant numbers..."

The people it did manage to see and got in front of Work and Income case managers accessed $850,000 worth of advance payments and other grants, which they were legally entitled to but had difficulty accessing without support.

Mr Russell said people drove from Whangarei, Tauranga, Thames and Hamilton for the event.

While the group was Auckland-focused, it was happy to talk to beneficiary groups and community groups elsewhere in New Zealand, he said.

- NZ Herald

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