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19 February 2012
welfare harms children
matter of children and the benefit system has long concerned
began with the death of Wairarapa toddler Lillybing
(Hinewaoriki Karaitiana-Matiaha) in 2000. Had she survived
childhood she would have become a teenager in August last
year. These missed milestones do not pass unnoticed because my
own daughter was born the same month and year as Lillybing. At
the time, as the disturbing details of the case became known,
the vulnerability of a 23 month-old was very apparent to me.
It turned out Lillybing’s caregiver was not only receiving
her own benefit, but defrauding Work and Income of a second.
That prompted me to begin thinking about the relationship
between benefit dependence and child neglect and abuse.
short stays on welfare
should be differentiated from long-term dependence.
all children are harmed by being dependent on welfare. Many
New Zealand children have some contact with the benefit system
by way of short stays on a benefit due to a relationship
breakdown, parental unemployment or other incapacity. Most
children who rely on a benefit – around 85 percent – rely
on the Domestic Purposes Benefit. To appreciate the extent of
welfare reliance in terms of the number
of individuals as opposed to length
of stay consider that:
“…. by the time children born in 1993 turned
seven, half had been supported by one of New Zealand’s main
social assistance benefits at least once.”
the majority of these children, who would now be aged 18 or
19, have grown into functioning, well-adjusted young adults.
long-term dependence look like?
At the end of 2005 just over half of sole
parent benefit recipients had spent at least 80% of the
previous ten years dependent (or a shorter history period in
the case of people aged under 28).
This involves around 90,000 children.
In 2010 a collaborative effort between Ministry of Social Development and
researchers involved with the well-known Dunedin
Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study found across
all benefits two thirds of those dependent at age 32 had spent
more than half of their time dependent over the previous 12
is long-term dependence harmful? Is it poverty?
there is little disagreement that long-term welfare dependence
is associated with poorer childhood health, educational and
social outcomes: but why? A common explanation is the poverty
that children of beneficiaries experience. Yes,
poverty can lead to poorer
children reliant on government transfers, when compared with
poor children reliant on market incomes, have lower living
standards and a number of compounding shortfalls that can be
expected to place them at greater risk of negative
simple terms, children living in low income families that
work, do better than those on benefits. The same researchers
found that “… after mediating factors are taken into account, it appears that
income has a modest
effect on child outcomes,”
but “…receipt of welfare income is negatively
associated with children’s outcomes….”
low income only plays a small part in child outcomes.
To illustrate this point further, the lowest income groups
in New Zealand are Maori, Pacific and Asian.
Asians have the lowest median weekly incomes (blue
column) yet their children are not routinely beset with
problems of poor health and low educational achievement.
Childhood adversity is far more prevalent among Maori. In fact
the greater Maori childhood adversity correlates more closely with higher
income from benefits (purple column).
to a further source, the Household Incomes Survey, one in
three Maori children lives in poverty compared to one in four
Yet indicators for child abuse and neglect, for example,
children removed to live in CYF family homes or in foster
care, show that Pacific children form only 7 percent of the
total whereas Maori children account for around half. At 7
percent Pacific children are probably under-represented given
theirs is a very young population. If Maori and Pacific
children are disproportionately poor, yet only Maori children
are disproportionately abused or neglected, where does that
leave the poverty excuse?
if poverty isn’t the primary factor for the abuse and
neglect of children, what is?
Long-term benefit-dependent workless homes
tend towards dysfunction - a lack of, routine; positive
relationships and sound decision-making. Overcrowding, poor
environmental hygiene, conflict, drug and alcohol abuse are
not unusual characteristics.
Drawing here on my own 5 year experience as
a volunteer working with families on welfare between 2004 and
2009, I saw a sick child stuck to their bedding because their
constantly re-infected eczema had wept and dried overnight.
The constant re-infection was due to a lack of hygiene. Sheets
weren’t washed. Floors and surfaces were not cleaned.
Appliances may have broken down but fixing them was not a
priority, at least, not as important as getting high. When
relationships are antagonistic, debt is out of control, all
available grants have been used and the black dog of
depression is frequently at the door, it’s hardly surprising
some form of escapism is sought.
I watched a runny-nosed toddler clad only
in a disposable nappy and sweat shirt, wandering, or
clambering when she encountered steps, from house to house on
a bitterly cold winter morning while her mother and partner
resumed their drinking binge from the night before. The
mother’s bank statement revealed most of a benefit payment
being drawn out in instalments over one evening at a local
hotel. That child has since been removed into her
But for some academic rigour I return to the earlier-quoted study into
the difference between children in poor families that work and
those who do not. The researchers state, “receipt
of welfare income is negatively associated with children’s
outcomes, even when level of income is controlled. This effect
derives not so much from welfare receipt per se, but from
parental characteristics that make some parents more prone
than others to be on welfare….
families are much more likely than other families to have a
caregiver suffering from depression, anxiety or other
psychological problems, physical health problems, low
cognitive skills, drug or alcohol abuse or other problems.
These factors, taken in combination, reduce the likelihood of
consistent and nurturing parenting.”
“parental characteristics” make some more likely to be on
welfare, benefits, in turn, support or indulge
their physical and social environment is harming long-term
benefit-dependent children. What else?
Benefits replace fathers.
An abundance of international research
shows that father absence creates numerous problems.
Girls without fathers have earlier sexual relationships and often repeat
their mother’s sole parenthood and ensuing welfare
evaluation of the Christchurch Early Start programme, which
deals with those families most in need of support services,
showed 64 percent were single parent families, and half of the
mothers had, themselves, been raised by a single mum. Young
men most likely to father a child at an early age are also
more likely to have been born to a teenage mother and spent
time in a single mother household growing up.
Father absence is the most common factor
for development of criminality. Youth Court principal judge
Andrew Becroft said the factor most common to those appearing
before him was the lack of a father in their lives.
Father absence frequently means there is no
working role model for growing children to observe and
emulate. And last on an incomplete list, father absence
deprives children of a natural protector.
The Christchurch Health and Development Study
showed: "The study
examined multiple-problem behaviour among teenagers including
substance abuse, mood disorder, suicidal thought, low
self-esteem, police contact and early sexual activity.
Children who by the age of 15 had exhibited a number of
these problems tended to come from socially disadvantaged
best predictor at birth was sole parenthood."
has been a marked trend away from marriage. In 1968
unmarried births made up 13 percent of all births. By 2009 the
percentage had grown to 48.5 percent (30,533 of 62,964).
Only 12 percent of children
live with both biological parents who
are not married.
The trend has been steadily
In 2004, unmarried births
made up 76 percent of all Maori births.
argue that unmarried births frequently occur within abiding de facto relationships but the second point above, made by Jan Pryor
when she was director of the McKenzie Institute for Families,
that only 12 percent of children live with both biological
parents who are not married, shows this is not typically the
trend towards more unmarried births has been steadily upwards
and we can expect that, this year, the proportion will reach
50 percent - an easy figure to remember.
higher rate for Maori mirrors that of other indigenous
populations and minority groups in developed nations, and
explains the very high rate of Maori women’s dependence on
the DPB. The Welfare Working Group (WWG) found that in 2006
around 40 percent of Maori women aged between 20 and 29 are on
welfare, usually the DPB.
My update on this via questions asked under the Official
Information Act found that by 2010 the figure had grown to 46
chose the year 1968
for a comparative base for unmarried births because that was
the year the DPB Emergency benefit was introduced (by a National government). Later,
National MP Lance Adams-Schneider drew up a bill to introduce
a statutory DPB. The
essential difference between the two was the first was granted
on a discretionary basis whereas the second was granted
irrespective of the reason for being a single parent. In any
event, Labour was elected to government before Mr
Adams-Schneider could fulfil his aim and the task fell to
them. The politics around the creation of the DPB have
sometimes been misrepresented by those on the right side of
the political spectrum. It would have happened under either
the parallel rises in the uptake of welfare for single
parents, and unmarried births, is striking. Is there a
statistically proven association?
research shows an increase in yearly benefits of 1000 euros is
estimated to increase the incidence of single mother families
by about 2 percent. United
States research showed a 50 percent increase in the monthly
value of AFDC and food stamps led to a 43 percent increase in
European research is based on comparing benefit payment levels
and unmarried births across countries; the United States
research, across states. US research showing the association
between the level of benefit payments and unmarried births,
like the research into father absence, is quite thick on the
ground but there is no equivalent NZ research (that I am aware
the second way welfare causes damage to children is by
encouraging father absence.
the situation is not quite as black and white as that.
fathers are not worth having around. The absence of some
fathers, and indeed some mothers, would be better
for their children. That is what short-term welfare should
facilitate, the ability to leave a destructive relationship.
However, the longer welfare is available for, the more it is
actually likely to attract undesirable partners.
a relatively secure income and home are vulnerable to
parasitical partners. Partners
who may be biological fathers or successive ‘step-fathers’
but who want and take no financial responsibility for raising
their children, preferring to spend their earnings on
activities which expose those children to risk, for example,
violence exacerbated by drug or alcohol abuse.
not all so-called single parents are, in fact, single. Not all
so-called ‘fatherless’ families are.
brother of a client I worked
with, “… only goes with single mums because they have money and a place to
that time he had a protection order out against him regarding
the latest mother of his latest child so was doubtless looking
for a new bed to park his work boots under.
again, putting aside the anecdotal evidence, is there
statistical evidence that supports this scenario? Regarding
who were beneficiaries had risks over four times the average
for all women.” NZ
Crime and Safety Survey, 2006
violence one assumes a partner exists. Yet most female
beneficiaries are on the DPB for single parents. How can that
be? One reason is a court ruling known as the Ruka Ruling. In
1996 the Court of Appeal found, in order for a relationship to
be "in the nature of a marriage" two essential
features must be present:
a degree of companionship
demonstrating an emotional commitment and
Further, the effect of any
violence or emotional abuse in the relationship was to be
taken into account when assessing these features.
Thereafter thousands of cases in which Work
and Income had originally judged the beneficiary to be living
in a relationship after the nature of marriage and so subsequently either removed her
benefit and/or ordered a repayment, had those decisions
overturned. Eventually almost 3,000 cases were paid out at a
cost of over $6 million.
What then was the upshot of this ruling? If a domestic
purposes beneficiary lives with a violent partner she can
still legally claim the DPB.
L. Satel, a psychiatrist and lecturer at the Yale School of
Medicine says, about similar circumstances in the United
a mother and her children are living with a shiftless lout who
sponges off her government check, food stamps and Section 8
[state funded] apartment. He learns that battered women can
keep getting their benefits. If keeping his partner brutalised
means a regular check for him, some men will do just
that." Sally Satel.
further consequence of this is, of course, children get caught
in the crossfire.
do statistics tell us about the correlation between benefit dependence and the incidence of child abuse
to the NZ Social Policy Journal 1996, “59%
of the children and young people who were the subject of care
and protection notifications were the children of
Unfortunately the enquiry which
produced this data has not been repeated and I am told by the
Ministry of Social Development there are no plans to do so.
the Family Violence Intervention Programme launched in 2007,
it was said, “The
programme recognises that New Zealand has a very high rate of
family violence and that many victims are clients of Work and
Income. Service Centres are an excellent point of contact to
identify and support people in this situation.”
I have shown some of the ways that welfare benefits harm
children using anecdote, academic research and statistics.
Welfare hurts them directly through material deprivation; but
more significantly, it hurts them through father absence, and
the dysfunctional homes, habits and relationships
benefit-dependence encourages. Yet despite the evidence,
advocates for welfare continue to insist that,
cause of harm to children is poverty” therefore,
solution is to RAISE BENEFITS”
as the research already referred to suggests, raising benefits
will increase unmarried births resulting in more workless,
dysfunctional homes. OECD research shows that alleviating
child poverty via greater public transfers results in more
workless homes, citing Australia (very similar to NZ in social
assistance for single parent families) as a prime example:
1 percentage point increase in the level of poverty reduction
achieved by the welfare state is associated with an increase
in the number of jobless families by 0.63 percentage points.
Among the English-speaking countries, the correlation is even
stronger (about 0.92), so that Australia and the United
Kingdom reduce child poverty very significantly and have very
high levels of joblessness among families; while Canada
and the United States reduce poverty much less, but have much
lower levels of joblessness.”
that statement was made pre-recession.)
Raising benefits is NOT
a solution. Raising
benefits will only aggravate current problems. Yet this is
exactly what ‘anti-child poverty’ campaigners are
demanding when they call for all beneficiary parents to
receive the In Work Tax Credit.
Neither however is the status
As it stands, officially, at least a third
of DPB recipients became parents as teenagers. The true
proportion is probably as high as a half but due to a loss of
continuous MSD data we will never know for sure.
Based on my own calculations I believe the percentage is nearer to a
half. Supporting that claim is the following fact from Michael
Tanner’s book, The End
of Welfare: “…nearly
55 percent of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC),
Medicaid and food stamp expenditures are attributable to
families begun by a teen birth.” (AFDC
was the American equivalent to New Zealand’s DPB. In 1996 it
was replaced with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.)
Even 16 and 17 year-olds are paid a welfare
benefit if they become parents, yet births to
‘adolescents’ result in even greater risk of child abuse
and neglect than births to 18 and 19 year-olds. Also the
younger people go on welfare the greater the likelihood they
will stay there long-term. According to the Welfare Working
Those most at risk of
staying a long time when they enter the system, June 2009
The above graph shows that the proportion
of new entrants to the benefit system in 1999 who spent more
than 5 out of the next ten years dependent was highest amongst
16-17 year-olds at just over a half.
age-specific statistics from the Office of the Children’s
Commissioner show that,
increased likelihood of serious assault for children with a
mother aged under 15 years is almost sevenfold, for a mother
aged under 17 with one or more siblings the risk is more that
ten times, and for a mother aged under 17 years with less than
12 years education the risk is eightfold.”
rate of adolescent (under 18) Maori birth is around four to
five times that of non-Maori. The following statement from
Corrections New Zealand explains, to a significant degree,
Maori over-representation in the justice system,
great many studies indicate that births to mothers under the
age of 18 are associated with poorer long-term outcomes for
those infants. While this factor in and of itself is not
necessarily “criminogenic”, it appears to be so strongly,
when associated with other social disadvantage factors.
Arguably, traditional models of Māori family which were
not solely focused on the biological parents alone may well
have been better able to support young mothers. Nevertheless,
in contemporary New Zealand society, the social circumstances
of young mothers tend to feature poor educational attainment, reliance
on welfare support, exclusion from paid employment, and
disrupted home environments. These in turn contribute to a
chain of adversities which can affect the child’s
development, resulting in behavioural and learning problems,
and ultimately delinquency and crime.”
a strong deterrent to child-bearing, eligibility for this
group, 16-17 year-olds, must end. There is no doubt in my mind
that benefits produce an incentive to having children. The
rate of teenage birth is ten times higher in the lowest decile
than in the highest. The income from a benefit is likely to be
higher than income from work for uneducated and unskilled
females. (It is unclear what the current welfare reform
proposes in this area. Eligibility for the new Sole Parent
Support benefit is 19 and older.)
else should we be doing?
term assistance for separating parents or un-partnered births
should remain but time limits (with some exemptions) should be
introduced. United States federal law (which dictates
eligibility for federal funding) allows states to exempt up to
20 percent of their caseload from time limits. In New Zealand
this might, for example, include a mother with a severely
disabled child, who, without her care, would have to be
Welfare Working Group has recommended work-testing when the
youngest child is three years old, which is also the age from
which 20 hours free Early Childhood Education is available. My
own opinion is that one year should be adequate for bonding
with a newborn or re-establishing as breadwinner. One year is
not unheard of in some US states or European jurisdictions
where social assistance for single parents mirrors paid
parental leave arrangements.
here is, the lower the limit, the greater the disincentive. The welfare
system should not be
encouraging relationship breakdown or premature parenting.
Immediate families must be the first port of call for the care
of babies born to young people. If that is not viable then
adoption should be considered.
Non-relative adoptions fell from 2617 in
1968 to 63 in 2010.
By all accounts adoption is not particularly favoured by
Child, Youth and Family, the agency that is responsible for
overseeing adoptions (except for Maori or whangai adoptions
which can occur outside of court jurisdiction). Government
seems to be favouring a greater degree of permanency in
placement of children removed from their parents. Paula
Bennett’s Home For
programme is encouraging. Children are not always best off
with their biological mother or immediate family or whanau and
we shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge this.
in addition to welfare reform and more adoption, more education is needed.
never, ever shake a baby
is a worthy campaign. Why not a never,
ever make a baby on a benefit campaign?
staying with the target subject of the never, ever shake a
baby campaign, secondary school education for young males
about the financial liabilities incurred through child support
is vital. They need
to hear the stories of men who have had their lives
financially crippled by child support liabilities. A study
released in the NZ Social Policy Journal last year found
respondents having a sole Māori cultural identity had
odds of early pregnancy and parenthood that were over seven
times higher than those of non-Māori... These
results were evident for both males and females.
Maori males, like their female counterparts, also get trapped
in the benefit system because child support payments rise as
income rises thus penalising any attempt to advance in the
workplace. To minimise child support payments some will
intentionally remain on a low income benefit.
to summarise my suggestions:
4 Major Reforms.
limits for most
eligibility for the very young
there is one more which is outside of the arena of government.
Expecting more from the poor: expecting more from ourselves.
That is the by-line of a book entitled Overcoming Welfare by
James L Payne. His were the ideas that motivated me to get
involved at a practical level with beneficiary families. The
greatest need of many struggling parents is someone who can
help them see the world in a different way; a simple
prescription perhaps, but one that is time- and
patience-consuming in practice. Granted, I had more failures
than successes. But the breakthroughs are so very worth it.
We, the ‘haves’ – and I am not talking about material
well-being – need to help the ‘have-nots’. Those
with capabilities – practical and intellectual – need to
reach out to those whose own capacities have been eroded by
years of state dependence as children and adults.
Welfare does not equate to well-being. Poverty
is not the over-arching problem it is painted as; open-ended
benefits, as a misguided response to poverty, are. Open-ended
benefits have increasingly damaged the prospects of children
being raised safely and with care.
poor families: does the source of income change the
Social Policy Journal, Issue 18, 2002
poor families: does the source of income change the
Social Policy Journal, Issue 18, 2002
Caspi A, Moffitt T E, Taylor, A & Dickson, N (2001).
Predicting early fatherhood and whether fathers live with
their children: Prospective findings and policy
considerations. Institute for Research on Poverty
Discussion Paper No 1235-01
Benefit Dependency: The Issues, August 2010, http://ips.ac.nz/WelfareWorkingGroup/Index.html
The Effect of Benefits on Single Motherhood in Europe,
Libertad Gonzalez, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA),
August 2006, M.Anne
Hill and June O’Neill, Underclass behaviours in the
United States: Measurement and Analysis of Determinants
(New York City: City University of New York, Bruch
College, August 1993)
De Facto Decisions Review Background, New Zealand
Government Press Release, 30 August, 2002
Steady Progress in Benefit Review, Ministry of
Social Development, 8 April, 2004
Excuse”, Sally Satel, Women’s Quarterly (Winter 1998),
and W.Adema (2007), “What Works Best in Reducing Child
Poverty: A Benefit or Work Strategy?”, OECD Social,
Employment and Migration Working Papers, No.51, OECD
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