Workers cannot vanish at will, nor should beneficiaries.

The news that at least 21,000 beneficiaries have travelled overseas in the past nine months had a predictable response. The airwaves went hot with taxpayers' anger and disgust at the supposed "rip-off" of the welfare system. Welfare defenders bristled with equal indignation, accusing minister Paula Bennett of "beneficiary bashing". They seemed to consider overseas travel to be part of today's average living standard that beneficiaries ought to be able to share.

Labour spokeswoman Sue Moroney said it was wrong to imagine a benefit alone allowed anyone to travel overseas. Often the cost was met by family members or was a gift. She is right, but she and others who talk about poverty in this country ought to remind themselves of this more often.

The Children's Commissioner, who annually reports on the numbers in poverty as defined by household income and surveys of material possessions, ought to take note of the travel figures. On the income definition all beneficiaries and their children are below the poverty line. But many will have additional support from their families.

A return air fare to Australia or the islands for a special occasion is only one of the gifts a sole parent or unemployed person might receive. That does not suggest they ought to make do with less from taxpayers. Benefit rates are enough to meet essential daily living expenses, they are not sufficient to pay for holiday accommodation in this country, let alone a trip overseas.


It is, though, "staggering", as Paula Bennett says, that as many as 21,000 have had a trip since July, when the rules became more stringent. That is just the number who did not tell Work and Income they were going and consequently had their benefit cut. Of those, nearly 5000 have had their benefits cancelled once eight weeks had elapsed since their departure and they had not re-established contact with Work and Income. It begs the question, what would have happened before last July?

Payments totalling $10.5 million have been saved since July by suspending the benefits of those who left with no word. Most were on job-seeker benefits, which means they are expected to be available to take a job as soon as one can be found. Anything more than a short absence from the country is obviously breaching the terms of that assistance. Yet the rules still allow a benefit to be paid to a person overseas for up to 28 days. Unless the journey has a health or compassionate purpose, the allowance seems too long.

Only 1750 of those caught by the new rules have made more than one trip abroad since July, most of them twice and 191 have travelled outside the country three times. The circumstances and travel habits of those few warrant closer scrutiny. For the rest, the suspension of their benefit has probably come as a surprise and it will be a reminder that their income carries an obligation not unlike the wages of employment, where recipients cannot expect to be paid if they are absent without leave.

Overseas travel has come within the means of most people today and it is a principle of social welfare that nobody should be excluded from participation in the ordinary living standards around them. Modern home entertainments and labour-saving appliances are rightly considered essentials for this reason. But an overseas trip is outside the bounds of social participation. The public is not obliged to pay for it. The fact that so many beneficiaries get to go overseas at times is a credit to their families and their private support. It may explain why there is more poverty in statistics than is visible in real life.

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