Welfare advocates are calling for an overhaul of relationship rules within the welfare system this Valentine’s Day.

It’s the season of celebrating love – but a coalition of welfare and child poverty action groups says matters of the heart can hold an extra layer of difficulty for beneficiaries.

This is because the current rules for assessing welfare entitlements can mean people’s payments are cut substantially if they are in a relationship, Fairer Future said.

The group said some people were hesitant to begin relationships for fear of losing income support and is calling on the Government to overhaul the rules.

So, what are those rules?

People are legally required to tell Work and Income if their relationship status changes, as it can affect how much they are paid.

If somebody receiving a benefit doesn’t tell Work and Income they have entered a relationship, they and their partner could be fined and forced to pay back money. They could also be prosecuted or be sent to prison.

Work and Income considers people to be in a relationship if they are married, in a civil union or in a de facto relationship.

Relationship rules can also affect students through partner income testing within the student allowance scheme.

The impacts of the rules

Relationship rules within the welfare system were intrusive and caused unfair outcomes, Fairer Future’s Vanessa Cole said.

“Everyone deserves the chance to enter into a relationship without fear that falling in love will radically undercut the income they rely on,” she said.

Relationship rules have been singled out as a pain point for people on benefits for years.

A survey of more than 3500 single parents last year found many were hesitant to begin a relationship because it meant losing income support.

Just over half (51%) of those surveyed avoided dating because of their benefit payments.

A Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) report last year also highlighted the financial price that some people paid to be in a relationship.

It said if two beneficiaries were considered to be in a relationship, their single person benefit rate was cut to the lower married person rate.

“For example, if they are both on the supported living payment, their combined income falls by $116 a week.”

The report said the guidelines around what the Ministry of Social Development considered to be a de facto relationship was also “both inconsistent and often extremely inappropriate”.

The Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG) echoed those concerns in its 2019 report.

“One of the strongest findings from the consultation was that the rules for determining whether a ‘relationship’ exists (that is, whether a relationship is ‘in the nature of marriage’) are not working and are causing considerable harm,” it said.

“The definition of a relationship is unfair and does not reflect how relationships actually form, and the financial penalty for partnering is significant and may be unduly influencing partnering decisions.”

Renewed calls for change

The stories that welfare advocates heard showed relationship rules were outdated and restricted people’s freedoms, Cole said.

“This policy is eroding, not building, connections between people in our communities,” she said.

“It prevents people entering relationships because they might lose some or all of their financial independence. The policy’s impact on people’s financial independence also risks trapping people who are in dangerous and unsafe situations, making it even harder to leave.”

Social Development and Employment Minister Louise Upston said she does plan to look at the current system.\

“I understand the strain that relationship rules can have on households that rely on welfare, and the barriers these rules can create to solo parents re-partnering,” she told 1News.

“I’m planning to look at whether these rules could be improved.

“One of my top priorities as minister is reducing the number of children growing up in benefit-dependant homes, and relationship stability is important for this.”

More stories:

Following the biggest hīkoi to Waitangi in a generation

“We’re not going anywhere.”

Under 30s want more Covid boosters but can’t get them

We're in a fifth wave of Covid, but many young people had their booster years ago.

I almost died on a walk! Here’s where I went wrong

Please, for the love of God, learn from my mistake.