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AAAP on National's Welfare Policy announcement

Earlier this week the National party unveiled a new welfare policy that would effectively block people affiliated with gangs from collecting benefit. Simon Bridges took to Twitter on Tuesday to proclaim that a National led government would prevent gang members and their “associates” from collecting welfare if they can’t prove that they don’t have illegal income. Auckland Action Against Poverty has criticized this policy, saying it’s “out of touch” with the communities it affects. AAAP Coordinator Ricardo Menendez March says that giving WINZ authority over who is and isn’t gang affiliated will do nothing but entrench racial prejudice against Māori and Pasifika families.

Felix Walton spoke with Ricardo Menendez March on Wednesday to find out more.


Felix Walton: Could you just sum up for me what National is proposing here?

Ricardo Menendez March: So, the National party is proposing [that] Work and Income have discretionary powers to demand that people who are deemed to be gang affiliated prove where they got their income and assets. If they deem that those assets have been obtained illegally, their benefit will be cut off.

How do they determine whether someone is gang affiliated?

Well that’s the thing, it’s that they would effectively be giving discretionary power to the staffers to determine this. Unless there’s been a previous criminal conviction or something like that, there is very little way that a case manager could actually determine this, meaning they would just be leaving it up to prejudices and biases about who is gang affiliated or not.

It almost sounds like they’re putting the burden of proving the absence of guilt on the people rather than actually having to prove that they’re gang affiliated.

That’s right, and another problem with this policy is that it also makes an assumption that everybody who is gang affiliated is a criminal and vice versa. I think this is putting more stigma on many families who grow up dispossessed, in state care, and have been casted to the fringes of society.

It sounds like you don’t really see this as much of a solution, but I’m almost wondering what they’re trying to solve.

That’s the thing, I don’t think it’s solving anything. It’s a dog whistle, and an attempt to garner support from a sector of society that does seem to be concerned about violence in Aotearoa, but in terms of what it will actually achieve it’s actually just more punitive measures in an already broken welfare system. It won’t reduce poverty, or violence.  If anything, it risks increasing violence and criminal activity because if you cut people’s income, some people will only be able to feed their kids by gaining income in an illegal way, so keeping people on the benefit who have no other means of support is actually sometimes the only way to prevent criminal activity.

Simon Bridges has been pretty active on social media, he called welfare a “free ride,” it seems to me that National cares more about impacting welfare rather than actually stopping any sort of gang violence.

Yeah, at the end of the day I think this just shows that welfare is likely to be an issue in the 2020 election and that we do risk a lot of these debates being held purely on rhetoric as opposed to the actual solutions that are needed to lift people out of poverty. We do worry that a lot of the discourse is going to become very “Americanized” around issues of violence, around issues of poverty, and we’re going to move away from talking about the solutions such as lifting benefit levels, access to housing, healthcare, etcetera.

Absolutely, so what do you think they should do instead? What do you think a more positive policy would be?

For many people who have been gang affiliated and who we’ve worked with at AAAP, they keep telling us that if the government wants to break the cycle of violence they can start addressing the fact that most gang affiliated whānau actually have been in state care and have faced abuse, and we’re hearing this in the news right now, so that would be a start. Additionally, ensuring that people have access to income through legal means ensures that we are not forcing people to become criminals by depriving them of their ability to have access to food on the table and access to things like housing. Those are the things we would be asking and expecting politicians to focus on, and not just on empty rhetoric and dog-whistle politics.

Could you tell me a little bit about what New Zealand’s welfare system is like at the moment?

Our welfare system at the moment is not providing for people. The benefit levels are far below the poverty line, which has resulted in a record number of people having to queue up at Work and Income begging for food grants, which sometimes don’t even cover the basic costs of weekly groceries. So at the moment too many people are going without, and we haven’t really seen welfare reform for the past twenty years that has made a substantive, genuine transformative difference to families. It’s all been piecemeal approaches by the Labour led government and then National comes in and strips our welfare system back again. So we are really desperate for a government that will put in place a measure that will make a difference for families as opposed to one that will just talk the rhetoric and not do any of the action.

What would you like to see Labour do to strengthen our welfare?

They could start by implementing the recommendations from the Welfare Expert Advisory Group. It’s clear that benefit levels need to go up by up to 47%. This is the government’s own report, so I think the Labour led government could start by giving people access to dignified income and on top of that removing some of the punitive sanctions they report also talked about. These are all things that could be done which would help lift people out of poverty. At the end of the day, the additional income people get would be injected back into the local economy which would actually be better for everybody, so there is no reason to delay action on these things.


Photo credit: Crave Cafe