The Government’s target to have 50,000 fewer people on a benefit by 2030 will include those who go to prison, move overseas — and those who die — not just those who enter the workforce.

It will also include people who change relationship status or switch to superannuation — but the Government says this will be offset by people flowing onto the benefit.

It’s prompted Labour to accuse the Government of “dishonesty” about whether the target is about getting people into work or just “pushing people off benefits” — something the Government has rejected.

The target is 50,000 fewer people on the Jobseeker Support benefit by 2030 — comparing December 2023 figures to December 2029.

Social Development Minister Louise Upston confirmed all types of benefit exits — not just those going into work, training or study — would be counted in the target figure when 1News inquired.

She said any suggestion they impacted the target “in any meaningful way” was a “red herring” because people will also join the benefit in the same period — such as returning to New Zealand or leaving prison.

But Labour’s social development spokesperson Carmel Sepuloni said she believed it was “a dishonesty to the target and the purpose of the target” and it showed the Government was not focused on getting people into work, but simply getting them off the Jobseeker benefit.

A fact sheet for the target — one of nine public service targets announced at the beginning of the month — said the target was needed to enable “all who can work into work”.

“Work is about more than money. It provides a sense of purpose, independence and connectedness — leading to a better future and helping families break out of the cycle of inter-generational welfare dependence. It also creates opportunity and builds dignity.”

A press release from Upston on April 18 on beneficiary numbers said it underscored the importance of the target and that the Government was “focused on helping more Kiwis into work”.

Ministry of Social Development data published in March, covering the previous quarter, showed just over 48% of Jobseeker benefit exits were because the beneficiary obtained work. Some entered prison (4%), while 11% transferred to a different benefit, and 6% left New Zealand.

Upston told 1News the Government opted to include the overall Jobseeker figure because it required agencies to address the number of people coming onto Jobseeker benefits as well as those coming off them.

“Rather than zeroing in on those already receiving Jobseeker, which would be the case with a target focused on work exits, we want agencies doing everything they can to stop people needing Jobseeker in the first place by helping them take up available jobs, training opportunities, or study options.”

Upston said the situations of people on Jobseeker benefits and the reasons they moved off them varied.

“Some of the reasons are demographic but these movements tend to offset.

“For instance, while some people may reach pension age, move overseas, or go to prison, there will also be those who add to Jobseeker numbers by reaching the age where they qualify, returning to New Zealand, or coming out of prison.”

She said the 50,000 reduction would take all of those demographic movements into account, so any suggestion they impacted the pursuit of the target in any meaningful way was a “red herring”.

“The purpose of the Government’s ambitious targets is to help improve the lives of New Zealanders, and we will be achieving this target through a laser focus on getting people into work.”

She said it was worth noting there would also be people over the next six years who got part-time work while also receiving the Jobseeker benefit.

Ministry of Social Development.

“While this is consistent with the Government’s aim of helping people shift into employment, these successes will not count against the Jobseeker target.”

About 17,000 people were in that category at present, she said.

Upston said Treasury forecast overall Jobseeker numbers to increase, peaking at 198,500 in January next year — something that was known at the time the target was decided.

She said the Government chose a 50,000 reduction because it was the best measure of “work-capable people who depend on welfare”.

“Reducing the surge in welfare dependency that occurred under the previous government is what we’re trying to achieve.”

Labour: Target ‘not purely about work outcomes’

Sepuloni told 1News she worried the target’s approach — which did not specifically aim to get people into work — meant the Government would be “pushing people off benefits to make their books look better”, rather than into genuine work opportunities.

“The minister is finally admitting that the target to reduce beneficiaries by 50,000 is not purely about achieving work outcomes.

“Success for the Government in achieving these numbers will include people cancelling benefits because they are put in prison, move overseas, change relationship status, become eligible for superannuation or die. These measures have nothing to do with real work outcomes and yet the Government have made out that the target is purely about their ambition of getting beneficiaries in to work.”

She said she rejected the Government’s claim it had a laser focus on getting people into work.

“It will be a laser focus on making it more difficult for people to access benefits in the first place and getting people off the books as soon as possible with no regard for where they go.”

Carmel Sepuloni.

Sepuloni — the former Social Development Minister — said she was “very genuinely concerned” for the almost 80,000 Jobseeker beneficiaries who were on the Health Condition/Disabilities benefit.

“The additional pressure that the Government’s target and resulting perverse behaviours could put on this already vulnerable group should be of concern to all of us.”

She said as unemployment rose New Zealanders should be worried about the welfare safety net and whether they would be given quick access to it if they were eligible and needed it.

“Yes, benefits are forecast to peak at 198,500 people in January 2025 — what actions will the Government be taking and what investments will they be making to try and beat these forecasts? I’ve seen no evidence to date that there are any actions or investments, and I don’t have confidence the budget will present any.”

Minister responds – Labour ‘had no plan’ for welfare dependency

In response to Sepuloni’s comments, Upston said the purpose of the target was “to support more people into work” — something she said was one of the most important things the Government could do to help rebuild the economy.

“The previous Labour government had no plan to reduce welfare dependency in this country, which is why the number of people on Jobseeker benefits increased by about 70,000 on its watch.”

She reiterated her point that demographic shifts would be offset by people reaching the age of eligibility for the Jobseeker benefit, returning to New Zealand or leaving prison.

The Government will count people leaving the Jobseeker benefit to go to prison amongst its target of 50,000.

“The coalition government has already begun its plan to combat the forecast rise in benefit numbers by setting out our expectations around the use of benefit sanctions and MSD beginning work check-ins for job seekers after six months.

“This will eventually be followed by mandatory reapplication for Jobseeker benefits every six months, new non-financial sanctions, and a traffic light system to help job seekers comply with their work obligations.”