Lindsay Mitchell has written a fantastic piece and has asked me to publish it so it gains a wider audience. I am very happy to do so.
As Rodney Hide said in the comments, this should be pinned to every wall in Treasury.
Growing up in 1960s New Zealand, houses were smaller and families bigger. Paradoxically, overcrowding and child poverty weren’t a major issue. Most families had two parents and many could even afford a stay-at-home mum. A very small percentage of families experienced financial hardship associated with an absent father.
In 1973, influenced by the Royal Commission on Social Policy’s urgings, the government introduced a statutory benefit for sole parents regardless of the reason for their single parenthood. In the following 20 years unmarried births with no resident father more than quadrupled from around 2,500 to 12,000 – 22% of all births – annually. The relatively generous DPB saw single mums dropping out of the workforce. (The Royal New Zealand Plunket Society partially attributes this development to the eventual non-viability of Karitane hospitals which had provided live-in employment for unmarried mothers.)
These births accumulated in the statistics. By the early 1990s around a quarter of a million (mostly) mothers and children were dependent on the state for their survival. But the benefit still kept them above the poverty threshold.
When the incoming National government of 1990 opened Treasury books, the news was bad. This is where the authors ofChild Poverty in New Zealand pick their story up. They describe “benefit cuts of between 10 percent and 30 percent for many beneficiaries supporting children.” In fact, for a lone parent with one child, the cut was 10.7%; for those with two, 8.9 percent. The universal family benefit was abolished, but half of the savings were reallocated into increasing Family Support for beneficiaries and low-income families.
Nevertheless, the drop in income was enough to push beneficiary households below the poverty threshold (though they had probably been barely over it prior). Compounding this was the high number of partnered jobless parents created by an unemployment rate exceeding 11 percent in 1992. From that time the proportion of children in poverty, measured at below 60 percent of median disposable household income after housing costs, has been flat to falling slightly.
Sixty nine percent of children in sole parent households are poor compared to 15 percent in two parent families. Today, a lone parent heads around 30 percent of all families with dependent children. Long-term dependent sole parent families aren’t typically the result of a marriage breakdown. They hail from very young mothers with no educational qualifications, work skills or regular partner.
Every year around one in five new-born babies will be reliant on their caregivers benefit by Christmas. This pattern has persisted from at least 1993. For Maori the number jumps to over one in three. Add to this Treasury’s advice to the Ministerial Committee on Child Poverty,
“…around 1 in 5 children will spend more than half of their first 14 years in household supported by main benefit. This group is at the highest risk of material hardship and poor outcomes across a range of dimensions”.
The worrying aspect of this pattern is its persistence through good economic times. In 2007, when New Zealand had record low unemployment, the percentage bottomed at around 19%. Over three quarters will rely on a sole parent benefit, the remainder on either an unemployment or disability benefit. While some of the reliance will be due to unforeseen circumstances like are job redundancy, most could have been predicted by the parent.
In a recent Listener column Jonathan Boston wrote “…it is worth pausing and considering how easy we would find it to raise children under such circumstances.” The same counsel should be put to those people who can actually change the pattern. Though too much emphasis on “personal responsibility” would give less weight to “fairness and compassion” according to the book. Why these societal attributes would be mutually exclusive is unclear. Read more »