When Sarah Lin Wilson moved in with her partner a few months ago, it hit her in the pocket.

As a beneficiary, she had to give up all of her entitlements - her Supported Living Payment, her Accommodation Supplement and her Disability Allowance.

That is because her relationship was, according to Work and Income, "in the nature of marriage". At that point, people on a benefit have their payments reduced or cut.

"The impact is huge and ongoing," said Wilson, a freelance writer who lives in Nelson. She has a form of arthritis which causes severe pain and fatigue.


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"Like most people, we can't afford to live on one income, so I continue to push myself to go to work.

"On the one hand, I'm so, so happy to be back at my old job. On the other, the pressure on me is clearly impacting my health negatively. I'm constantly worried that I will relapse back to where I cannot work at all."

Wilson said the prospect of having your welfare cut when you form a serious relationship placed huge pressure on new couples.

"You have to have the conversation 'Are you willing to support me completely?' right from the beginning. There's no other situation like that."

A group of NGOs is appealing directly to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to change Work and Income's rules for beneficiaries who get into a relationship.

In an open letter to Ardern published today, advocates said penalising them did not encourage healthy families or fit in with the Government's wellbeing focus.

"What this means in practice, is that people who start dating someone for up to six weeks, or have someone to stay up to three nights a week, or even people who have long-term flatmates, are having all their financial support cut," the letter said.


Child Action Poverty Group economics advisor Susan St John said the relationship rules were based on old-fashioned ideas about what partners were expected to do.

"It assumes that a couple has lower costs than two people who share accommodation and that a new partner is able and willing to support a sole parent and their children," she said.

"These assumptions are based on old ideas that do not apply today, if they ever did, and which have forced many into unacceptable poverty."

Auckland Action Against Poverty coordinator Ricardo Menendez March said the definition of a relationship was unclear and was often left to a Work and Income case worker.

"People on the benefit … face intrusive questions about their sex life, living arrangements and personal finances in order to assess whether someone is in a relationship," he said.

The advocates want benefits to be individualised - a recommendation which was proposed by a high-powered advisory group on welfare earlier this year.

The Welfare Expert Advisory Group bluntly criticised Work and Income's relationship rules in its report published in February, saying that they were "not working" and were "causing considerable harm".

The Coalition Government has made some changes in response to that report, but has not addressed the relationship rules.

In a speech last week, Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni promised that more significant welfare reforms were on the way over the next two to four years.

She said that included lifting income support and fundamental changes to the welfare system.