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Image: Gabi Lardies
Image: Gabi Lardies

SocietyFebruary 20, 2024

‘It’s best to just stay single’: Income support is still affected by relationship status

Image: Gabi Lardies
Image: Gabi Lardies

The costs of tying income to relationships aren’t all financial – people are missing out on love, support, and their humanity, says a campaign aiming to cut the tie.

On Valentine’s Day, a handful of MPs received handwritten letters decorated with silver and red love heart stickers, drawings of flowers, and other felt-tip flourishes. David Seymour got one, Helen White got one, Carmel Sepuloni got one, Christopher Luxon got one, but it was Louise Upston, minister of social development and welfare, who got the most. Unfortunately for Upston, these were not exactly Valentine’s love notes. They were letters calling on the government to change the Work and Income (Winz) and Studylink policy which ties income support to relationships

The letters mark the launch of a new campaign, Let Love Thrive. It comes from the same coalition, Fairer Future, which successfully campaigned for higher benefits ahead of the 2021 budget. Now, they’re out to end the “archaic” relationship rules, saying that income support should be individualised. A very similar coalition wrote Jacinda Ardern, then prime minister, an open letter with near identical demands in 2019.

Put simply, the rules seem to be of a different era. One where many households could survive on a single income, and where it was common for women to be financially reliant on men, and men on women for clean clothes, food and maybe everything else. But we no longer have what was known as family wages – we have minimum wages set below the calculated living wage, and benefits that are even lower. On the jobseeker’s benefit, single people over 25 are entitled to $386.54 a week before tax, or if you’re in a couple, $325.46. Solo parents can receive up to $550.24 weekly before tax. Student allowance varies from $289.31 to $392.70 depending on how old you are and whether you live at home. But, if Winz or Studylink decides you’re in a relationship “in the nature of marriage”, benefits can get cut, or stopped entirely. You become, in their eyes, an economic unit. Every dollar your partner makes over $160 per week deducts 35 cents from your benefit. If your partner makes $980 a week, you only qualify for $6. Someone with two 10-year-old children would get $38 from the jobseeker benefit. 

Cards made by volunteers for the Let Love Thrive Campaign (Photo: Supplied)

So what makes a relationship? The Work and Income website lists considerations like socialising and holidaying together, sharing bills, living at the same address, and giving each other emotional support as indicators that you could be basically married to someone. Flatmates have been investigated. Sex lives have been pried into. When someone took a support person of the opposite sex to a Winz appointment, they were both investigated for benefit fraud. At least one case manager has insisted that after dating someone for six weeks, a partner should be financially responsible for you, and your children. 

Because the welfare system is targeted at those most in need, “it is reasonable to take into account the resources of a person and their partner,” said Jayne Russell, group general manager client service delivery at the Ministry of Social Development, in a written statement to The Spinoff. They are aware of the Let Love Thrive campaign, but their role is to “implement the policies of the government.” She says in the vast majority of cases, a relationship akin to marriage means living together. People need to declare if they are single or a couple, and if they’re unsure, “come and talk to us,” she says. However, people feel threatened by this policy because the criteria is vague and inconsistently applied by different case managers. 

“It’s depressing,” reads a comment from a solo parent in the Mako Mama report, “I feel so lonely, unwanted and undervalued.” The writer was “terrified” that someone might tell Winz if they were seen on a date. Another single parent wrote, “I’ve had to consider whether the benefits of a secure loving relationship were worth the financial cost”. The people surveyed called the rules stupid, humiliating, a cause of shame, bogus, complicated, risky, anxiety inducing and ridiculous. They said it made dating impossible and terrifying. The survey found that 51% of low income solo mums said they were afraid of entering into new relationships because it could mean losing their income support. A comment from a focus group reads, “it’s best to just stay single and not even look for love.”

The cost isn’t only financial. This policy is eroding, not building, connections between people in our communities,” says Vanessa Cole, co-convenor of Fairer Future. “Everyone deserves the chance to enter into a relationship without fear that falling in love will radically undercut the income they rely on”. She points out that in taking away people’s financial independence when in a relationship, there’s a risk of trapping them in unsafe situations, as having no money of your own makes it even harder to leave.

Campaigners gathered outside of the Ministry of Social Development in Wellington, 14 Feb 2024 (Photo: Supplied)

On Valentine’s Day, Let Love Thrive campaigners held up a hand-painted sign outside the Ministry of Social Development. In parliament, policy changes were passed under urgency which officials have warned could put up to 13,000 more children in poverty by 2028, according to the government’s supplementary analysis report. The new policy matches main benefit rates to CPI inflation rather than wage growth, so they’re likely to fall further behind the incomes of other households.

While they were quick to move on that, the government does not have any set plans to change the relationship rules. In a written statement to The Spinoff (sadly with no heart-shaped stickers or felt-tip flourishes), Louise Upston said, “I understand the strain that relationship rules can have on households that rely on welfare, and the barriers these rules can create to solo parents re-partnering. I’m planning to look at whether these rules could be improved.” She said that relationship stability is important for one of her top priorities in this portfolio – reducing the number of children growing up in benefit-dependent homes – but she did not specify how.

In the meantime, solo parents who rely on income support will continue to be wary of entering new relationships. One Mako Mama participant said, “It’s almost impossible and terrifying to date someone while I’m on a benefit, they’re suddenly expected to start financially supporting you and your child if they start sleeping over… Being investigated by Winz is an absolutely terrifying prospect. It’s not worth it, so you stay single.”

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