Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Starvation benefits

What a National government means: people slowly starving on benefits:

A sole parent says she has lost a sixth of her bodyweight because she has not been able to eat properly since the Government tightened access to training subsidies for beneficiaries last year.

Sara, a 35-year-old West Auckland mother in her second year of an applied science degree at Unitec, gets $517 a week in welfare but needs $668 a week to pay rent, drive to her classes and run a home for herself and her 12-year-old daughter - a shortfall of $151 a week.

This is someone who is doing everything right, upskilling herself in order to get decent work and support her kid. Instead of rewarding her, the government cut her Training Incentive Allowance, sentencing her to a death by slow starvation. And there is nothing WINZ will do to help. And now, because she has publicly complained, Paula Bennett will no doubt splash her personal information across the media in an effort to smear her.

But while the proximate cause is Bennett's TIA cut, there is an underlying problem of benefit adequacy, dating back to the 1991 benefit cuts. As explained in Alister Barry's In a Land of Plenty [part 5, from 10 mins, to part 6] experts worked out minimum food budgets for beneficiaries based on nutritional needs and different expectations of diet. Treasury took the lowest level - which was inadequate to meet basic nutritional needs - and cut it by 20% to provide an "incentive". And while benefits have been inflation adjusted, that basic gap between benefit levels and minimum nutritional needs has remained ever since. And now we're back in an era of mass unemployment and longer durations on benefits, it is again coming back to haunt us.

This is indecent. No-one should starve in our country, and a government system which guarantees starvation is simply immoral. But it is also stupid. Kids who grow up malnourished and starving have higher health costs and do not reach their full potential. In other words, the short-term "saving" of benefit cuts in fact produces long-term costs. But it won't be the present government paying those costs - they'll be well out of office when the bill finally comes due, and cleaning up the mess will be someone else's problem.