How Jacinda Ardern officially responded to charities wanting benefit boost and calling her 'disconnected'

After being urged by more than 60 charities to increase benefits - one labelling her "disconnected" - Jacinda Ardern officially responded in a letter defending her record on helping low income families. 

A copy of the letter addressed to the charities dated November 16 has been seen by Newshub and its legitimacy has been confirmed by Auckland Action Against Poverty - one of the recipients. 

Ardern said in the letter her Government "already started making a range of changes over the last term, which we believe will have made a significant difference" for families on low incomes.

"On coming to Government, we worked swiftly to establish legislation requiring successive Governments to set targets to reduce child poverty. In doing this we set ourselves ambitious targets to reduce child poverty by at least half over the next 10 years."

The letter mentions data published earlier this year showing seven out of nine child poverty indicators were improving. This has been challenged, however, because there was no change in material hardship, which is considered the most direct measure of child poverty.

The letter was written in response to a string of charities - including the Salvation Army, Auckland Action Against Poverty and Child Poverty Action Group - calling on the Government to increase welfare payments in the lead-up to Christmas. 

"We are calling on you to lift one of the biggest limitations on whānau and child wellbeing: not having enough income," they said. "The situation is urgent. As the new Government, you can release the growing constraints on individuals, families, and children."

The charities mentioned the Government's COVID income relief payment temporarily given to those who lost their jobs due to COVID-19. The payment was contentious because it was nearly twice the amount of the usual jobseeker benefit. 

"You showed us that you understand that current benefit levels are insufficient and lock families and children into poverty - an issue that affects all of us. Now, we are asking you to apply the same common sense approach to all income support."

Ardern ruled out the request last week.

She pointed to the $25 a week boost to the benefit earlier this year and doubling of the winter energy payment - $40 a week for singles and $63 for couples and those with dependent children paid out from May to October. 

The winter energy payment was part of the Government's $5 billion families package. It also included $60 weekly BestStart payments for parents of new-borns until they turn 1, as well as tax credits for families with dependent children based on income thresholds. 

The Government also indexed benefits to average wage growth which will see benefits steadily rise, and lifted the abatement threshold in line with minimum wage increases - that's the reduction of beneficiaries' payments when they earn more money. 

"I'm really proud of the work we've done," Ardern told reporters on November 9. "It's fair to say there is more work to do, but we're not going to fix these issues overnight."

Auckland Action Against Poverty coordinator Brooke Stanley Pao responded by describing Ardern as "disconnected" with the realities of hardship, claiming she was "choosing" to keep families in poverty. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

Ardern said in her letter the Government has introduced other areas of support for families such as increasing the minimum wage and its $5 billion boost over four years to build 8000 state and transitional houses in partnership with housing providers.

"We're rolling out free and healthy lunches to children participating at schools, and have funded food banks, food rescue and other organisations to help address additional demand and support communities to become food secure."

On top of that, the letter points out that doctor visits for under-14s is free, NCEA fees have been scrapped, and low decile schools are encouraged not to request parental donations thanks to financial incentives from the Government

Ardern thanked the charitable organisations that wrote to her. 

"Your contributions in our communities are greatly valued and appreciated. We look forward to continuing to work together to support the wellbeing of New Zealanders."