Friday, October 25, 2013

Baby Blair

We're a bit late getting to this, but a report in Wednesday's Herald about the mother of an 8 week old baby having her benefit halved for failing her work-test obligations raised our eyebrows. This seems an extraordinarily heavy handed response from a government claiming to be concerned for vulnerable children: it's hard to imagine anyone more vulnerable than an 8 week-old child whose Mum can't find accommodation in a tough housing market. 

Let's get the parent blaming thing out of the way first, because we're all experts on bringing up other people's children, right? Ms Griffin - the mother in question - doesn't appear to have led a life on the straight and narrow. Fine, but that doesn't mean she's not a suitable parent, nor does it justify reducing resources available to the household in order to force behavioural changes, in this case finding a full-time job. Let's think about what that would mean for the child. I confess I don't know a bunch about babies but I know that if they do not form attachments as infants it literally stunts the growth of their brains and impairs their emotional development. Reason enough to support a mother in her role as a parent, one would have thought.

Working Mums providing cheap labour at the canning factory
But what raised our eyebrows is the legal basis for WINZ cutting this woman's benefit. The legislation passed in 2012 requires a parent who gives birth while on a benefit (and it appears this woman was on a benefit at the time) to be available for work when the newborn turns 1. Not 8 weeks. Do you see the difference? It's possible that the overly bureaucratic requirements of WINZ mean that Ms Griffin did need to produce a birth certificate to prove baby Blair was hers and that she hadn't borrowed him for a few hours, but not accepting the hospital discharge forms is simply negligent. The Minister of Social Development is ever at pains to point out the legislation has some flexibility, but here we have yet another example of her department being inflexible and dimwitted, and possibly behaving in a manner contrary to the legislation. If a parent is not obliged to work part or full time then there is no reason to cancel their benefit for not meeting their non-existent work obligations.

And this also begs the question of how the so-called investment approach to beneficiaries actually works. Here is a mum who needs housing assistance, who is transport-challenged and has a very young child, and her benefit has been cut? How is that an investment in improving this woman's life or that of her baby? It's not. Another F for Paula's department.