Poverty advocate says Government must end rhetoric and do something about Kiwis in financial distress - 'Things are getting worse'

Auckland Action Against Poverty is calling on the Government to close the gap between rhetoric and reality, and to do something to address the worsening situation for society’s most financially vulnerable.

The group's coordinator, Ricardo Menendez March, spoke to Breakfast this morning about the increasing number of people needing government assistance.

"Well, over the past few years, we've seen a steady increase of the number of people requiring hardship assistance, particularly food grants, but there’s been a really steep jump from last year to this year, and I think it's showing that we're reaching crisis levels, where far too many people are requiring food grants to get by," Mr Menendez March said.

He said over 300,000 people required assistance. 

The Prime Minister says the Government told Work and Income “don’t turn people away” that come for assistance. Source: Breakfast

"Things are getting worse."

He says rising rent costs are "the biggest driver" in the "jump" in numbers.

"New Zealand reports show that people on the benefit have been the most disproportionately affected by the rising cost of rent, and nothing has been done to address that.

"There's other stuff, such as petrol, food, etc, but it's really the cost of rent and housing that's affecting beneficiaries the most."

Mr Menendez March says what can be done is for the Government to "raise benefit levels, at the very least".

"Child Poverty Action Group released a study suggesting that they should at least be doubled, and that would only put them 60 per cent below the poverty line at this point, so it wouldn’t even put them over the poverty line.

"They haven’t been increased substantially for over 25 years, so while benefit levels stagnate, the cost of living continues going up, and this is, you know, the fault of successive governments – both National and Labour – who have kept poverty levels at this rate."

Mr Menendez March says doubling the benefit wouldn’t disincentivise people from going back to work.

"If we keep benefit levels at this rate, we're creating a crisis of health and of housing. People who are seeking work are genuinely looking for jobs but there are not enough well-paid jobs in New Zealand at the moment.

"People are going for cash and low-paid work in the regions, and they don’t last for very long, and they go back onto the benefit, so the Government needs to be creating well-paid jobs if they want people to go into work."

He says, however, that "so far, we've seen no clear indication or timelines on when they’re going to be removing benefit sanctions or raising benefit levels".

"So far, it's been really disappointing to see Jacinda Ardern at the UN talking about kindness and compassion. Well, we've got a really unkind welfare policy that is punishing our most vulnerable.

"She promised to remove sanctions from sole mothers before the election and acknowledged that benefit levels are far too low, so I'd like to see a clear timeline of when she’s gonna do it – not hide behind another working group. She doesn't need a working group to know that benefit levels are low and that sanctions are hurting our mothers and most vulnerable."

The Prime Minister told Breakfast her Government had reduced sanctions, and increased family benefits and winter energy payments.

"When you compare this last year, with the year prior, we approved, I think it was around 13,000 emergency housing grants, those are non-recoverable forms of assistance for people, That’s up about 8,000 the year prior."

"We were really deliberate about saying give the assistance to people who need it, don’t turn people away, you can see that in the numbers that are out there, and again those are non-recoverable."

Auckland Action Against Poverty’s Ricardo Menendez March spoke to Breakfast about doubling benefit levels. Source: Breakfast