At the National Party conference in the weekend, National Party leader Christopher Luxon announced a policy to address what he described as a “new approach” to supporting young people in need of financial support from the Ministry of Social Development. 

The idea he put forward was to provide employment coaches to people between 18-24, offering tailored support to find jobs. Alongside sanctions for people unable to engage, National is also proposing an incentive of $1000 for young people who find employment and are able to remain employed for 12 months.

The idea isn’t all that new. In fact, it seems to be the long-awaited extension of the youth payment, which currently operates for people between 16-17. Anyone on the youth payment receives support from a youth worker; they also have obligations to engage in education, employment or training, receiving financial incentives if they do engage, and becoming subject to financial sanctions if they don’t.

The idea of providing youth workers as a support for young people accessing the benefit isn’t necessarily a bad one. For many, a youth worker, who is focused on supporting them to navigate the complexities in their life and providing them with tailored support, can be meaningful and powerful.

The problem with the policy however comes when it is linked to sanctions and incentives.

As mentioned, this essentially looks like the long-anticipated extension of the youth payment, which in theory provides a youth worker to help a young person navigate the benefit system, and is meant to support them to gain access to education.

Where the youth payment has struggled and where this policy will struggle also, is that it starts with the assumption that people are on the benefit because they’re either lazy or simply lack direction. When Paula Bennett brought the payment in under a then-National government in 2012, she did so out of concern that young people would get trapped on the benefit and at risk of long-term benefit dependency.

The base assumption seems to have been that young people were just generally lacking direction, and with some motivation, support, and a bit of carrot and stick, we could help them avoid needing the benefit long term.

However, when the youth payment was created, it failed to recognise the wider contextual challenges facing young people which put them in the position of needing to access the benefit.

This was demonstrated further in the criteria that was set for the youth payment. To access the payment you had to have had a family breakdown, meaning that you were no longer able to live at home with your parents. This meant that essentially what was created was a benefit for young people, who were experiencing, or had experienced, some form of homelessness.

However, because we had not adequately understood the reasons young people were accessing the payment, we also failed to respond adequately. No housing support was provided, and little thought was given to where these young people would live, and what other support they would need in order to thrive. This in turn has led to perverse outcomes, where young people experiencing homelessness have become subject to sanctions due to their inability to meet the obligations of education and engagement set for them.

National’s ‘new’ policy runs the same risk of asking the wrong question, in turn getting the wrong answer. Instead of asking how we get our young people off the benefit, we need to ask why they need to access it.

The answer is that many of our rangatahi are facing some immense challenges.

Challenges such as generational poverty, colonisation and discrimination, homelessness, mental illness and disabilities. Real challenges, that if unaddressed will result in policies like these failing to achieve their intended goals. Alongside these, we also have the reality of Covid and its impact on rangatahi. Rather than being immune to the crunch we’re all feeling, our young people have been amongst those who have felt the impacts of the lockdowns the hardest.

Many employers aren’t interested in hiring and training young people. And if they do, they are often asked to work dead end jobs for poverty wages and little job security while still dealing with the same financial responsibilities as those only a little older than them.

So, yes – to providing people with tailored support to meet their needs, but no to the assumption that rangatahi are after “a free ride”. As with most things, we need to respond rather than react. If we want to seriously support our young people, then we need to ensure that all our rangatahi have access to safe and stable housing, we need bipartisan commitment to enshrine the right to housing for young people into law, and we need to ensure each and every one of our rangatahi has access to liveable incomes and tailored support to meet their needs.

Yes, we want to support rangatahi into meaningful employment, but sanctions and punitive frameworks are not the answer. Instead, we need to invest in our young people and provide them with the opportunities they need to thrive.

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