Prime Minister John Key says beneficiaries who resort to food banks do so out of their own "poor choices" rather than because they cannot afford food.

Mr Key made the comment when asked in Parliament yesterday about poverty levels.

When Labour's social development spokeswoman Annette King asked about Salvation Army reports of high demand for food parcels, Mr Key responded by saying it was true that the global recession meant more people were on benefits.

"But it is also true that anyone on a benefit actually has a lifestyle choice. If one budgets properly, one can pay one's bills.

"And that is true because the bulk of New Zealanders on a benefit do actually pay for food, their rent and other things. Now some make poor choices and they don't have money left."

Ms King had asked Mr Key how his claim that most New Zealanders were better off from the tax cuts package tallied with reports such as that of the Salvation Army, which claimed "food poverty" was at nearly double the level of four years ago.

Mr Key said wages on average had gone up 16 per cent while prices had gone up 6 per cent and the Government had introduced a number of policies to tackle poverty problems.

A temporary increase to benefits was given last October to compensate for the GST increase until the next annual increase, based on the consumer price increase, in April this year.

However, Mr Key's comments horrified Sue Bradford, who heads the Alternative Welfare Working Group.

Ms Bradford said Mr Key clearly had no comprehension of the reality of living on a benefit.

While some did get by on the benefit alone, the circumstances of different beneficiaries varied widely. She said many did not waste any money but struggled to pay their rent, feed and clothe their families and send them to school.

An Auckland beneficiary leader last night challenged Mr Key to live for a month on the single adult dole of $194 a week.

"I'd like Mr Key to spend a month on the benefit and see how wonderful he thinks it is, considering it's a 'lifestyle choice'," said Helen Capel, an invalid beneficiary who speaks on benefit issues for the Auckland Council of Social Services.

"The cost of living is too high now and you cannot live on $194 a week even with the maximum accommodation supplement," she said.

Current benefit rates (after tax), plus temporary GST assistance until April 1, 2011:

* Unemployment & sickness benefits: $194.12, plus $3.92.
* Domestic Purposes Benefit (one child): $278.04, plus $5.62.
* Invalids' Benefit: $242.63, plus $4.90.
* Pension (single): $327.14, plus $6.61.

May also qualify for allowances: accommodation supplement (max of $225), childcare, allowance, disability allowances ($58.13).