Northland beneficiaries received more than $8 million worth of advance benefit payments last year for essential costs such as schooling and healthcare.

The Ministry of Social Development will provide an advance payment to beneficiaries with an immediate need for essential items such as food, health costs and power.

Northland beneficiaries had 21,242 grants worth $8.55m approved last year, according to Ministry of Social Development figures.

Figures showed 1635 grants were for school and education costs, 1364 for medical and associated costs and 17,762 for other emergency situations.


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

"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 to pay the advances back but could do so at $5 to $10 a week.

Ms Armstrong said it should be up to individuals to manage their budgets.

Some Work and Income staff thought beneficiaries wouldn't be able to pay an advance back because they had too much debt.

Beneficiaries were repaying debt to private finance companies at high interest, because they hadn't known they could get an advance from Work and Income with no interest, she said.

"So they don't get help from Work and Income because they're already so much in debt with private companies. It's crazy."

The number of advance grants has been steady for the past few years. Northlanders had 21,216 grants approved in 2014 and 21,167 in 2013.

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 is in place.

Northlanders had 765 applications for advance payments declined last year.
Reasons included, "need can be met in another way" and "not a qualifying need".

Nationwide beneficiaries received 313,334 grants worth $127,756,265 last year. They had a further 18,187 requests declined.

Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP) co-ordinator 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, Auckland 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, he said.