Work and Income urged to stop cutting benefits when people find partners

Anti-poverty advocates have called for an end to the "random and unjust" cutting of beneficiaries' incomes when they date or find a partner.

They've published an open letter addressed to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, saying the current Work and Income policy is "isolating people and punishing them for supporting each other during hard times, instead of encouraging people to build strong connections and support networks".

"If you're a single person on the benefit, you might completely lose your benefit if you date somebody who earns above the income threshold," says Ricardo Menendez-March from Auckland Action Against Poverty, which is one of more than a dozen signatories to the letter. 

Others include the Child Poverty Action Group, the Mental Health Foundation, FinCap, ActionStation and The Aunties. 

"A person at Work and Income can decide to stop or reduce a person's income support, if they believe they have entered into a relationship 'in the nature of marriage'," the letter reads.

"What this means in practice, is that people who start dating someone for up to six weeks, or have someone to stay up to three nights a week, or even people who have long-term flatmates, are having all they financial support cut. 

"Some people at Work and Income have been insisting that friends, acquaintances, and new romantic partners should become financially responsible for that person, and often their children."

According to Work and Income, a 'relationship' could be as simple as other people thinking you're a couple, living "at the same address most of the time" or holidaying together. 

It's not just sole parents and the unemployed who risk having their benefits slashed if they enter a relationship - the disabled are financially punished too. A Wellington woman with muscular dystrophy told Newshub earlier this year it took her 11 months to get approved for the Supported Living Payment, only to lose it when she moved in with her partner.

"Because I've made the decision to live with my partner, I've lost the independent income support I had. My partner has to do heaps more to support me physically, her whole income has to support both of us," she told Newshub.

"The cost of disability doesn't go away just because you're living with someone else."

The Ministry of Social Development told Newshub at the time she should get in touch "to see if there is more we can do". 

Because it's up to individual case managers to make the call, there's little consistency in decision-making, the groups say.

"Often it forces people, particularly women, into potentially financially abusive relationships or situations - this is not the sort of thing that should be happening in the 21st century," Menendez-March told Newshub.

"Disabled people need to continue to get financial support to manage their health needs, regardless of their romantic status," the letter continues. "And women raising children on their own need to have the financial independence to make decisions for the good of their children, whether they are in a relationship or not."

Menendez-March says these changes are in line with recommendations made by the Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG) in May. The Government only adopted three of the WEAG's recommendations. 

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni defended her track record at the weekend, telling Newshub Nation more of the recommendations would be considered soon.

"I can't pre-empt what may come of next year's Budget. But our minds are turned to making sure that we respond to the WEAG recommendations and that the WEAG recommendations, keeping in mind, are part of our overhaul."

The Work and Income website states it's illegal for people on a benefit not to inform them if their relationship status changes.