A few more dollars in your pocket – in exchange for your right to parent

Yesterday’s Budget was . . . not as horrible as I thought it might be. My beloved Health sector didn’t get much more than this year, or at least not in the areas I’m passionate about, and neither did Education, but at least there were no cuts. The bit that everyone’s talking about, though, is welfare. There’s big news on that front.

The big news is a really bloody big deal. $25 per week more to each beneficiary – that’s more than a third of my food budget when I was on the student allowance, to feed a couple of kids in addition to myself. $25 would have been revolutionary, and it will be to the lives of some kids. There are catches (of course) that I don’t fully understand yet, but I’ll come back to them tomorrow when I’ve read some more learned opinions than my own. Still. $25. That’s something I never expected from this government. It says that yes, they are actually kind of attempting to sort of keep their child poverty promises. This won’t take effect until April next year, but it’s still a pretty big shard of hope for beneficiaries.

As well as extra money for beneficiaries, low-income families that already receive the In-Work Tax Credit will receive an extra $12.50 per week. It’s not a lot in absolute terms, but that’s 12 loaves of bread, or six litres of milk, or two and a half kilos of mandarins – a big difference when you’re living on not a lot. It would even stretch to a fish and chip dinner for the family every so often – a real treat for many kids.

So where’s the downside, the seamy underbelly of the child poverty-addressing budget? Well, parents on the Sole Parent Support will be obligated to work from when their child turns three (rather than when they turn five and start school), for a minimum of 20 hours per week. And here we land in the ‘poor people don’t have the right to parent’ territory.

Parenting is important, and it really is a full-time job. It’s not so much when the kids go off to school, but under-fives demand a lot of time and effort. The idea that poor parents should have to send their kids to daycare or preschool while they work, an obligation to be enshrined in law, is blatantly classist. We live in a society that was set up to protect families and children. We live in a society that says it values parenting. But we live in a society that has decided that it doesn’t value poor people’s parenting? There is already an obligation for Sole Parent Support recipients to ensure their child is in Early Childhood Education – why? Because we don’t trust poor people to raise their kids properly, to make the best decisions they can for them. It’s bullshit. We wouldn’t dare enforce work or any parenting practice on white, middle class women. Why are we doing it to poor women?

Our Prime Minister says that it’s fair to force poor parents to work, because “Tens of thousands of Kiwis do that every day, and they do that half the time after 14 weeks”. It’s true that many parents choose to return to the workforce after their paid parental leave is over, and that is right for their families. Others are forced to return because they haven’t the income to do otherwise. This essentially means that people without resources are forced to return to work whether it’s good for their family or not – a situation that Mr Key’s family would have no familiarity with, as his mother was allowed to stay on the benefit in a state house while she raised him, and his wife became a full-time mother to their children. Key is essentially taking away from our people the advantages that his family has enjoyed since they emigrated here. It is shameful.

Not only is the budget requiring parents on benefits to look for work when their child is three, they are also increasing the hours needed to count as part time from 15 to 20 hours per week. Where are these hours going to come from? We already have a huge pool of unemployed and underemployed people in this country. Until the people unencumbered with children, with the time and ability to work available to them are employed, why are we pressuring people with the rather important task of raising the next generation to work? And what employer is going to take a beneficiary with kids on as a part-timer if they can choose someone who might be available for extra hours at short notice, who won’t be called away in a hurry because their child is sick, who won’t have to take days off in order to care for their child? It may be illegal to discriminate in that way, but in the real world that’s the way it happens.

This budget carries some promise for many beneficiaries, and a huge penalty to others. As long as this government refuses to value parenting as an important job and one that even poor people are capable of doing well and should be allowed to do, it’s only going to get worse. It’s a couple of years to the next election, but I hope that next time around there will be a change to someone with a bit of a heart.

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