Green MP Ricardo Menéndez March felt 'uncomfortable' listening to Jacinda Ardern's 'excuses' for not raising benefits

Green MP Ricardo Menéndez March felt "uncomfortable" listening to Jacinda Ardern's "excuses" for not raising benefits, but the Prime Minister says changes need to be sustainable.

This Thursday, April 1, will see a range of Government policies come into force aimed at helping address income inadequacy, including the minimum wage jumping up to $20 per hour. 

Benefit levels and superannuation rates will increase by 3.1 percent for over a million New Zealanders thanks to welfare payments being indexed to wage growth which will see rates increase by up to $16.16 a week. 

The abatement threshold - the limit of how much someone can earn each week before their benefit is impacted - will also increase this week, meaning around 82,900 low-income earners and their families will be better off by $18 a week on average. 

Foreshadowing the upcoming changes, Ardern said with the inclusion of the $5 billion Families Package, around 111,000 beneficiary families with children are now $118 on average better off per week.

That figure rises during the winter period, because of the winter energy payment: $20.46 a week for eligible singles and $31.82 for couples and those with dependent children, paid out from May to October. 

"There is still much more to do, including building more homes and improving our health system and investing in education, training and job opportunities," Ardern said. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty

"But as we head into the Easter break, I think the raft of changes that come into effect later this week represent real and long-overdue improvements to the support we provide to our most vulnerable."

But Menéndez March, who used to advocate on behalf of beneficiaries for Auckland Action Against Poverty, says changes like the indexation of benefits to wages means little without a substantive lift to benefits.

The Green MP said on Twitter he felt "uncomfortable" listening to Ardern's "excuses" for "choosing not to further lift core benefit levels to stop so many people needing food grants just to survive". 

The number of food grants has continued to increase since Labour came to power in 2017. That year it was just under half a million, and by 2019, more than a million were granted. The trend continued in 2020, to just over 1.5 million. 

Ardern acknowledged the trend, but attributed it to Labour making it easier for food grants to be obtained because there was "demand there that wasn't being met" under National. She also blamed the ongoing housing crisis. 

Thanks to COVID-19, more New Zealanders have been struggling to get by. September saw the biggest quarterly increase in unemployment since 1986, and the public housing register ballooned to more than 22,000. 

But Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni says it's getting better. 

"We've actually seen a decline since mid-January and even in the last week we've seen another reduction of about 1700 people on benefit," she said, standing next to Ardern at Monday's post-Cabinet press conference. 

"That's heartening, but we know how uncertain the times are given COVID, and so we just need to continue to watch that space, and keep doing what we've been doing to invest in training.

Green MP Ricardo Menéndez March.
Green MP Ricardo Menéndez March. Photo credit: Facebook / Ricardo Menéndez March

The Welfare Expert Advisory Group's 2019 report recommended sweeping changes to the Government, including raising benefits by 12 to 47 percent, or up to $100 a week for each benefit, for recipients to meet their most basic needs.

Sepuloni argued that with the changes coming into effect from April, it's effectively a 21 percent increase from what they would have been getting in April 2017. 

"We have, I think, made more traction than what people realise," she said. 

The Government did raise the benefit by $25 per week in Budget 2020, but Ardern said it's "unfortunate" that lifting the main benefit is seen as the only way to achieve income adequacy. 

"Our argument would be that we have been moving on income adequacy issues," she said, pointing to the Families Package's tax credits, higher accommodation supplements, and BestStart payments to assist with the costs of a new baby. 

"These are not single, one-off investments. This is ongoing spending throughout the years. We have to make sure what we put in place is sustainable," Ardern said. 

"The last thing I want to see is changes that we put in place reversed by a change in government. By making sure that what we do is sustainable, we lessen the chance that we will just move backwards.

"When you're talking about benefits, these are changes forever - that's what we hope - these are changes that we hope to sustain forever, and so we have to make sure we factor that in."