Poverty, social work and the Social Security Legislation Rewrite Bill

By guest writer Mike O’Brien

Mike is an Associate Professor at the School of Counselling, Human Services and Social Work at the University of Auckland.  In this post he raises concerns about the current rewrite of the Social Security Act . He is a Board member at Te Waipuna Puawai and of the Auckland City Mission and is a member of the Impacts of Poverty and Exclusion policy group for the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services. He is also the social security spokesperson for the Child Poverty Action Working Group.

Michael Joseph Savage opening the Social Security Building in Aotea Quay, Wellington, 27 March 1939

Poverty has long been a major factor in the lives of those with whom social work works. Its direct and indirect effects permeate the lives of many of the individuals, families and communities with which we work. In Social Work and Poverty, Parrott (2014) lays out very clearly both the historical influences of poverty in the development of social work and a range of aspects of its current significance. As daily media stories abound about the difficulties facing children and families in poverty, we are currently reminded very poignantly about both the current experiences of poverty and the key role of social work and social services in working with those struggling with its impacts.

Why does this matter right now? It matters because the Social Security Act 1964 is to be replaced this year by the Social Security Legislation Rewrite Bill 2016. The Bill covers a number of areas which have been included in amendments over the last half century since the passing of the 1964 Act. More importantly, it has an important statement of principles which reflect and reshape how the poorest in this country are to be treated under the new legislation. Significantly, the Bill does not use the word ‘poverty’ at all. It does use the word ‘hardship’ on 24 occasions, 17 of which are in headings.

The Bill sets out five general principles which, it states, are to guide the actions of those working under the Act. None of these will be a surprise – they have been integral to the working of the existing legislation for a number of years. The first principle states: “work in paid employment offers the best opportunity for people to achieve social and economic well-being”. Following on from this, the second principle states that finding and retaining work should be the priority for those of working age, while principle three says that for those for whom work isn’t appropriate, then then they should be assisted to prepare for future work, developing employment focused skills while the next principle is that those for whom work is not appropriate should be supported in line with the legislation.

The final principle authorises MSD to “identify appropriate assistance, support and services” for those at risk of long-term welfare dependency. This risk is defined to mean that the person is at risk of not obtaining full-time employment for an indefinite period and is likely to require support, fully or partially, through a benefit. Although not explicitly included in this definition, elsewhere, the Bill links the social investment approach, the government’s developing approach to social and other public services, with the risk of long-term welfare dependency.

Part 3 of the Bill includes 68 clauses which set out obligations under the Act. Three of these are about the Department’s obligations while all except one of the remaining clauses relate to beneficiary obligations. Nowhere in the clauses on obligations is there an obligation on the Department to ensure that applicants are advised accurately and fully of their entitlements. There are obligations on the Department to advise applicants and beneficiaries of their appeal rights, but not of their basic rights in relation to being fully informed of the assistance which is provided for in the Act.

Why does all this matter for social work? There are two important answers to this question. First, as I said at the start, poverty is an integral part of the lives of many of those with whom social workers work. We should expect that the legislation which underpins the provisions on which many of our clients depend will work towards reducing poverty. There is very good evidence that money matters for poor families and is important in reducing both levels of poverty and the experience and impacts of poverty. (See, for example, the recent reports from Cooper & Stewart, 2015; Kelley, 2012).

The ‘work first’ approach on which the legislation is based is ineffective as a solution to poverty. Work matters, particularly if that work is adequately paid, reliable and congruent with family priorities and commitments. However, using that as the first (and almost exclusive) principle on which to base social security legislation will consolidate poverty for those for whom work is either not possible or not appropriate. The legislation needs to include a principle focused on reducing poverty.

The second reason why the approach in the legislation matters for social workers is that there is now a solid body of practice based evidence that many beneficiaries and benefit applicants are not receiving all the assistance to which they are entitled. The evidence from the front line is clear – when applicants/beneficiaries are supported by an advocate then they are more likely to receive assistance, assistance which too often has previously been denied. There is good evidence of this in the Vulnerability reports from the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services over recent years and from the benefit advocacy work of groups like Auckland Action Against Poverty.

While there is nothing in the Bill which prevents advocacy, a requirement on the Department to ensure that all eligible assistance is provided would make a big difference for beneficiaries and would be an important balance to their obligations. It would mean too that social workers and social service agencies could undertake their work knowing that all possible assistance was being received and scarce, critical resources were not being spent advocating with WINZ, advocating for what beneficiaries were entitled to.

What, then, should social workers do? First, they need to look at the Bill and examine its implications for their families and their work with those families. Second, given the mission and ethical requirements of social work, they need to draw the evidence and experience from that work to inform the work of the Select Committee – submissions close June 20. Third, if their agencies will not allow them to talk to the Committee, they need to use their professional links to look to their Association to represent them. Fourth, they need to take every possible opportunity to alert those with the authority, the responsibility and the power to use their position to act to reduce (and eventually eliminate) poverty and its corrosive impacts. Then social work will have achieved a very important goal. Social workers cannot ‘fix’ poverty. But, drawing on our practice knowledge and experience, we can (and must) expect and demand that those with the authority and resources to do so act in ways which will achieve that vital and attainable goal.

[fac_icon icon=”camera-retro”] Image Credit |Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.


Cooper, K. & Stewart, K. (2015, January 23). Does Money in Adulthood Affect Adult Outcomes? Jospeh Rowntree Foundation [Blog Post}. Retrieved from

Kelley, M. (2012, June 14). However You Measure Poverty, Money Matters [Blog Post]. Retrieved from

Parrott, L. (2014). Social work and poverty: a critical approach. Bristol, England: Policy Press.

2 replies on “Poverty, social work and the Social Security Legislation Rewrite Bill”

Excellent work Mike and very timely given the Bill is with the Select Committee. Are you aware if ANZASW is putting a submission in? Your points would be a good start for our social work profession to advocate on this bill.

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