New Zealanders receiving benefits is down, but Opposition says Government could be doing more during worker shortages

The number of New Zealanders receiving a benefit has fallen over the past year, but Opposition parties say the Government should be doing more to move beneficiaries into work considering the current "historical labour shortage". 

New Ministry of Social Development (MSD) figures show 344,622 working-age people were receiving a main benefit in the June quarter, down from 354,744 in 2021 and 353,439 in 2020 when there was a spike during the COVID-19 pandemic. Of New Zealand's working-age population, 11 percent received a main benefit, down from 11.3 percent.

There were 170,763 people receiving Jobseeker Support in the June quarter, down 10.3 percent from 190,260 in June 2021. Those in the 'work-ready' category dropped 9.7 percent from 110,790 to 100,086. 

"The Government’s quick response to COVID-19, which included significant investment into front-line work-focused case management, has meant that most people seeking assistance from MSD are linked into work quickly," said Carmel Sepuloni, the Minister for Social Development.

"This has led to the downward trend in the number of people receiving a Benefit over the last few quarters."

Sepuloni said the number of people receiving a main benefit hasn't hit the 487,500 forecast by Treasury at the start of the pandemic.

"The number of people receiving a Jobseeker Work Ready Main Benefit is now 100,086, or 3.2 percent of the working-age population. This is in line with the reported unemployment rate in the Household Labour Force Survey.

"The statistics show our investment into front-line case management is working, and while we are not out of the woods by any means, we are tracking in the right direction."

The minister said 26,334 people moved off a benefit into work during the June quarter, including 8444 people who had been on a main benefit for more than a year.

Carmel Sepuloni, the Minister for Social Development.
Carmel Sepuloni, the Minister for Social Development. Photo credit: Getty Images.

But National's social development spokesperson Louise Upston said the Government is "failing" to address benefit dependency.

"Despite record job vacancies, with businesses across New Zealand crying out for staff, there are still 50,000 more people receiving the Jobseeker benefit than when Labour took office five years ago," Upston said. 

"This includes 11,200 more people under the age of 25, the group who should be able to find employment in an economy suffering labour shortages in almost every sector.

"Of most concern is the number of people who have been on Jobseeker for more than a year, which is 55 percent higher than in 2017."

Labour has had to govern through the COVID-19 pandemic, during which there was a significant jump in the number of people claiming Jobseeker support. In June 2019, prior to the pandemic, there were about 18,000 more people receiving the support than in June 2017.

Upston said the Government is currently "frittering away a golden opportunity to connect those on a benefit with job vacancies". 

National's social development spokesperson Louise Upston.
National's social development spokesperson Louise Upston. Photo credit: Newshub.

ACT's social development spokesperson Karen Chhour also questioned how MSD hadn't been able to get more beneficiaries into jobs "when employers are screaming out for workers". 

"We have an historical labour shortage. MSD has 100,000 work-ready beneficiaries on its books, an additional 35,000 work-ready beneficiaries compared to when they took office," she said.

"When fruit is rotting on branches and businesses are crying out for labour there should be no excuse for them to turn down suitable work."

Both Upston and Chhour said there needed to be accountability for those in the system.

"Labour is going soft on those who choose to stay dependent on government when they are capable of working. There are no longer any serious obligations or sanctions," said Chhour, who also pointed to data showing fewer completed prosecutions.

MSD's latest report shows 5583 sanctions were issued in the June quarter, down from 7533 in the June 2021 quarter. It is way down from 15,621 in the June 2017 quarter. The main reason for sanctions being issued this quarter was not attending appointments and failing to prepare for work.

Newshub revealed last month that the Government had spent nearly $100,000 advertising jobs for private companies despite the large number of beneficiaries on its books. 

"I don't see that as private sector advertising, I see that as supporting business to get the workers they need," Sepuloni said at the time.

The minister said sometimes those in the work-ready category don't have the skills to match roles available.