More grants paid out for power bills

Hundreds of struggling Otago beneficiaries were advanced and paid more than $460,000 in the past year - a jump of more than $130,000 - to help to pay their power and gas bills.

Officials attribute the demand to the economic climate.

And the problem appears to be a national one, with figures revealing a $3.8 million jump in similar payments around New Zealand compared with the corresponding period last year.

Figures obtained under the Official Information Act show for the year ending June 30, 2009, the Ministry of Social Development approved 1279 advances of benefits in Otago.

The biggest jump was in Mosgiel where nearly twice the number of grants in 2008 were approved.

The dollar amount of the assistance almost tripled.

Beneficiaries given advances have to pay the money back.

The ministry does not recover one-off grants.

Budget advice workers contacted yesterday were not surprised by the figures, saying more families were seeking help as unemployment rose and economic conditions worsened.

Nationwide, the ministry approved 38,857 special one-off and benefit advances totalling $13.37 million, compared with the 2008 figure of $9.56 million.

Beneficiaries asking for help rose by 7274 in the space of one year.

Ministry chief executive Peter Hughes said the number of working-age people receiving a benefit rose by 20% in the last year, a figure that was reflected in the greater demand for special needs grants approved over the same time.

In Otago, the ministry approved 79 special needs grants directed at power and gas bills.

Another 17 applications were declined.

In the 2008 year, it approved 50 grants and turned down 16.

Just under half of those applications were administered by the ministry's offices in Dunedin central, South Dunedin or Mosgiel.

Another 18 went through its Queenstown office, 16 in Oamaru and seven in Balclutha.

The biggest rise was reported in the Dunedin central service centre, where 25 applications were approved, compared with 11 in the previous year.

There were modest rises in all other service centres.

Benefit advances were approved for 1279 Otago beneficiaries in the June 2009 year, up on the 1044 for the previous year.

The number of those declined help also rose, from 56 in the 2008 year to 84 in the last financial year.

All service centres, except Queenstown, reported increases in benefit advance approvals.

In Queenstown, 25 advances were given out, one less than in the previous 12 months.

Benefit advances nearly doubled at the Mosgiel centre, 120 compared with 59, while there were also big jumps in Balclutha (152 approvals compared with 109), Dunedin Central (519 from 456), South Dunedin (356, up from 289).

Mr Hughes said Work and Income helped people manage their finances in the longer term and not just with immediately and urgent assistance.

"It is important to understand why the client cannot meet these costs so we can provide the most appropriate form of assistance.

For example, clients may be referred to budgeting and financial planning services."

Special needs grants are available to people who need one-off help to meet essential and immediate needs.

These include food, health and medical costs.

This assistance is available to anyone - not just beneficiaries and superannuitants - provided they meet the required income and asset tests.

A person can make more than one application for a special needs grant during a year.

 

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