Single mother on benefit says penalties for getting into relationships are 'dehumanising' and 'embarrassing'

A simple activity like going on a date is out of reach for South Island mum Emma*. 

Four years ago, Emma's life was very different, she was married and ran a business with her husband. She was financially comfortable and had a steady income. 

But in 2019, her marriage ended and while she was able to keep living in the family home until the divorce is finalised, she was let go from her job in the business and lost all her income. 

To make matters worse, the divorce turned ugly and is expected to drag on for some time, adding extra financial and emotional stress to Emma's life. 

Despite all the adversity, Emma started studying in the hopes of working again to provide for her children. She's also planning to work part-time while studying from July to avoid another winter on the benefit, something she said was miserable. 

"I just don't want to go through another winter on a benefit. It was pretty rough. I dragged the mattress into the lounge and the boys and I spent most of the winter sleeping in there together, just to stay warm … I don't want to do that again."

Despite doing everything she can to improve her situation for herself and her children, there's one simple need in life she can't have - companionship. 

In New Zealand, the amount of Government support someone is eligible for depends on several factors including whether they have a partner. This means a solo parent on the benefit can face having their benefit reduced or cut completely if they get into a relationship Work and Income see as "in the nature of marriage".

Work and Income say you're considered to be in a relationship if you're married, in a civil union or in a de facto relationship.

On its website, it lists several examples of behaviour which could mean you're in a relationship. It includes living together most of the time, sharing responsibilities such as children or socialising and going on holiday together. Work and Income also include having a sexual relationship and sharing household bills as examples.  

The issue of beneficiaries not being able to have relationships has long been contentious with charities and advocacy groups calling for it to be changed for years. 

But nothing has been done and it means Emma is forced to miss out on a basic human need as a result. 

"I just feel so trapped and I feel like while all this is going on I can't even think about moving on… I'm going to be 47 in May, how long do I have to be by myself?"

Being unable to have a long-term relationship is "really depressing", especially when she sees all her friends in loving relationships, she said. 

Emma feels trapped and controlled, and the idea of asking a new partner to completely support her and her children is embarrassing. 

"It's just embarrassing to say to a potential partner, 'Oh, we can't live together or you'd have to support me. And any man I would meet, he's probably going to have children of his own. I'm going to be impacting his family. I feel like I'd be pulling everybody down with me. 

"I feel like a problem on the sole of the shoe of the country. I'm very grateful for the support I get but I feel like in some ways I'm being treated like a child."

Emma said she wants to be able to support herself but until she finishes studying and begins working - she can't. 

"[It feels like] we're a prostitute of the state rather than supported by the state." 

She said it's "dehumanising" and puts women at risk because they have no financial independence. 

It's a concern shared by Child Poverty Action Group's Susan St John who said the current rules are inhumane and make it harder for people to get out of poverty. 

"One of the best ways to get out of poverty for many sole parents is to partner well, but to partner well you have to go through a long process," St John said. 

"It's very important it's given time and you don't jump into something that is not going to work or harm the children. If you're going to have something you can rely on, it doesn't happen overnight."

It's also a concern for St John because being forced to financially rely on a relatively new partner can make it very hard for women to leave if the relationship becomes abusive. 

The policy is also "increasingly inappropriate" because most families rely on two incomes now anyway, she added. 

"There's this strange idea somehow if two single people share the minute they have some sort of relationship, they have these additional economies of scale and it means they deserve less and so can be paid less. 

"Two sole parents who flat together are okay until there is a whiff of a relationship [and] when they're put together on a couple rate, their incomes fall by a very large amount," she said. 

Minister of Social Development Carmel Sepuloni was asked whether she thought the current rules were "fair and equitable" by Green MP Ricardo Menéndez March in Parliament late last year. 

At the time, Minister Sepuloni said while further work is needed, she's more focused on providing immediate support for families in need.

"The welfare system is primarily based around income, assets, and the need of a household. We know that family structures have shifted over time. The Welfare Expert Advisory Group highlighted this in their report," Sepuloni said. 

"I agree further work is needed on this and a review of settings that underpin financial assistance and eligibility is on the work programme for the welfare overhaul. 

"However, what I am most focused on is providing immediate support for families in need. Since we’ve been in Government, our changes have led to around a 40 percent increase in after-housing-cost income, inflation-adjusted, for those on a main benefit, and an increase in income of $243 per week for couples with children."

A spokesperson told Newshub the Minister's response hasn't changed since then. 

But for Emma, it means missing out on a relationship potentially for years while she tries to provide the best possible life for her children. 

Emma said she understands there will always be some people who try to take advantage of the system, but the current policies are too focused on them and not the people who actually want to get back on their feet. 

"I understand you don't want to make things too comfortable for people on the benefit but I also think we need to realise how people operate. There are always going to be people at the top who take advantage and there are always going to be people at the bottom who take advantage.

"But I think the bulk of us live somewhere in the middle and we want to be financially independent and we want to be productive. And I wonder if a lot of the policies or the rules… are targeted too much on making sure the people at the bottom don't get away with it when it would be better to make things a little bit easier for people in the middle who genuinely appreciate the support." 

She's not the only person impacted by the rules either, for disabled people they can be even more devastating. 

One day Emma will be back at work but people with lifelong disabilities face either never having a relationship or giving up their financial independence. 

This issue was also raised with Sepuloni in October last year. Minister Sepuloni said disabled people should be able to live independently and the Government has moved to significantly increase benefits along with investing in "other measures to support disabled people". 

But she conceded there is "a need for a review of relationship settings within the welfare system and that’s something that’s certainly on the cards". 

*Emma is not her real name