The risk of reducing child poverty

Dr Muriel Newman  

Welfare reform requires great care. Of all policy areas, the unintended consequences of getting it wrong can be devastating, especially for children.

In 1998 (the days when there was still free speech in New Zealand – before the politically correct brigade had gained the upper hand and the power to persecute anyone who dared oppose their agenda) the former Governor General, Sir Michael Hardie Boys, spoke candidly about the dangers to children of being raised in single parent families.
Drawing on his years of experience in family law and as a Judge, Sir Michael told the ‘Fathering and the Future Forum’ organised by the Children’s Commissioner.

Successful parenting

“It is beyond dispute that a child is best nurtured by both parents. The parenting most likely to be successful is a partnership, in commitment and love, between mother and father. The children most likely to be maladjusted, with all the personal and social consequences that follow from that, are those who grow up in single parent families; and that is especially so with boys who grow up fatherless. And in New Zealand there are tens of thousands of them, and the numbers are increasing as the rate of divorce increases, along with the number of ex-nuptial births and sole parents. Rattling off statistics de-personalises the effects of all this. Suffice it to say that they are all too apparent in truancy and school dropouts, delinquency and vandalism, drug and alcohol abuse, violence and suicide,” he had said.

Increasing risks

Over the years, the risks to children from single parenting that Sir Michael foretold have increased. Welfare dependency in New Zealand is now intergenerational.

According to the Ministry of Social Development, most young people who enter the benefit system have been brought up by a parent on a benefit: “Nearly three quarters of all beneficiaries up to age 25 had a parent on benefit while they were a child.”

With three out of four children raised by a parent on welfare growing up to become beneficiaries themselves, the new Government’s priority should surely be on moving sole parents into work.

However, instead of reducing sole parent dependency and intergeneration welfare, the changes being planned will further entrench them.

Once Labour’s proposed benefit increases are introduced, a single parent on a benefit with two children under the age of 12 will get more in real terms than at any time since the sole parent benefit was introduced in 1973.

The role of Fathers

An expectation that fathers would contribute towards the cost of raising their children, had been a key part of the 1973 Social Security Amendment Act (No 34), which introduced the DPB. In taking on the role of breadwinner, to provide stable incomes for sole parents and their children, the State required the private maintenance obligations of fathers to be retained.
In fact, Section 27B (4) of the Act stated, “If a person qualifies as an applicant… the Commission may, in its discretion, refuse to grant a benefit under this section until such time as the applicant has obtained a maintenance order for the applicant and the applicant’s child or children or has entered into a registered maintenance agreement which, in the opinion of the Commission, makes reasonable provision for the maintenance of the applicant and the applicant’s child or children.”

Under this provision, mothers being granted the DPB were required to take maintenance proceedings against their child’s father, with the proceeds paid into the Consolidated Fund to offset the cost of the benefit.

It was this requirement that distinguished the DPB from other benefits – it was not paid ‘as of right’ to those who met the eligibility criteria unless they also satisfied the maintenance requirements.
We know the incidence of social dysfunction – child abuse, substance abuse, domestic violence, educational failure, crime, suicidal behaviour – is much higher in single parent households.  By making sole parent benefits more generous, and removing sanctions, the new Labour Government will make these problems worse.

National at fault

Indeed, it is regrettable that when the National Government was undertaking its major reform of the welfare system in 2012, that it did not follow the recommendations of the Welfare Working Group to replace the sole parent benefit as a statutory entitlement, with support based on work. Doing so would not only have aligned our welfare system with those of most other developed nations, but it would also have sent out a clear signal to parents that it’s far better for children to be raised in households where parents work. 
The Prime Minister says she wants to reduce child poverty and that’s laudable.
But instead of focussing on what’s easiest for the beneficiary, the new government should focus on what’s best for the child. Encouraging intergenerational welfare dependency is not in anyone’s best interest.

Dr Muriel Newman is Director of the New Zealand Centre for Political Research, a web-based free weekly Newsletter, NZCPR Weekly. The above article is a highly edited version of the original that appeared in her weekly edition dated December 3, 2017, published here with her permission.

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