Penalising Solo Parents

Georgia Osmond

Life as a sole parent can be difficult, and arguably the government contributes to this by continuing to allow Section 70A of the Social Security Act 1964 to remain. Under this provision, it is possible for sole parents to have the benefit paid per child reduced if they fail or refuse to identify the other parent of their child/ren. If the sole parent fails or refuses to identify the other parent, their benefit is reduced by $22, and after 13 weeks a further $6 is deducted if they do not disclose the identity of the other parent. This means that sole parents could lose between $22-$28 per child weekly. This provision was introduced by the Ministry of Social Development in 1990 with the aim of encouraging shared raising of children, or at the very least to encourage the payment of child support. However, this provision has not done this and instead punishes single parents who do not know, or for personal reasons choose not to disclose, the identity of their child/ren’s other parent.

There are exemptions to the provision which sole parents can use. Among these exemptions include insufficient evidence to identify the other parent, active steps taken by the sole parent to identify the other parent, the risk of violence towards the sole parent or their child if the other parent was identified, no likelihood the other parent would actually contribute towards child support payments, or the child being conceived out of incest or sexual assault. By the end of March 2016, 2825 exemptions had been accepted.

There are, however, issues surrounding exemptions. Many sole parents are initially unaware that the sanctions apply to them and are never told by Work and Income that they can apply for one or many of the exemptions. Even if they are told about the exemptions, in order to contest the imposition of the sanctions or apply for an exemption, a letter from a lawyer is required. For many sole parents, it can already be a struggle to afford basic necessities – paying for a lawyer would be unrealistic. Community law centres have the ability to provide letters for applicants, but the minimal knowledge around this possibility, the lack of funding of community law centres and their stretched resources make it even harder for law centres to be able to assist sole parents when they need it.

One of the other larger issues that surrounds exemptions is the lack of desire of sole parents to disclose the identity of the other parent. This is due to the high probability of a history of domestic violence, rape, or incest. At the end of March 2016, 18% of the exemptions awarded were based on the risk of violence towards either the sole parent or the child. Auckland Action Against Poverty, a social action and advocacy group running the Stop the Sanctions campaign advocating for the removal of section 70A from the legislation, have stated that much of their experience with sole parents involves a refusal to disclose the name of the other parent because of the fear of violence. There is also a requirement to disclose details relating to any sexual violence that would grant an exemption. Forcing the applicant to disclose these details, usually in an open space WINZ office, can be both traumatising and embarrassing contributing to a reluctance to divulge this information.

The Social Security Act 1964 will eventually be replaced by the Social Security Legislation Rewrite Bill. However, this will do nothing to assist sole parents. This is because section 70A has been rewritten as sections 176-178 of the Bill. Both the Labour party and the Greens have contested the continuation of section 70A, claiming that the Bill is really only focused on revenue-building. This is supported by the fact that the new Bill has moved the amount to be deducted (either $22 or $28) out of the legislation and into a different set of regulations, suggesting that there is no limit to the deduction rate. When the average amount paid out weekly for child support ($20.71) was compared to what could be deducted from a sole parent’s benefit, it is clear that there is a greater desire to save money rather than assist those in need. Auckland Action Against Poverty is actively protesting the sections, stating that they place sole parents under further hardship.

Whether the provisions are as 70A of the Social Security Act 1964 or as the Social Security Legislation Rewrite Bill, the effects felt by sole parents are just the same. As at the end of March 2016, approximately 13,616 sole parents and 17,000 children were affected by the provision. Although the legislation is written as gender-neutral, it disproportionally affects women who make up 97.7% of sole parents affected. The provision also disproportionally impacts on Māori at 52.8% of the total. The Ministry of Social Development has recognised that sole parent families suffer hardship four times greater than families with two parents, and Auckland Action Against Poverty has found that 50% of sole parents that are on a benefit suffer ‘severe hardship’.

Metiria Turei has called section 70A a punitive piece of legislation, and it is not hard to see why. The system that should be in place to assist sole parents and provide them the extra support they need instead punishes them for the decision they have made not to identify the other parent. In a country where 290,000 children live below the poverty line, it is clear the legislation itself needs to be completely restructured to reflect this reality rather than remaining as it has for over 54 years.

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