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Lindsay Mitchell

A Tale of Two Tenets

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As the election looms, two minor parties, both likely to feature in the next parliament – ACT and the Greens – couldn’t be further apart in their tenets regarding welfare and child well-being.

Perhaps the single-most underrated and under-reported issue in New Zealand is the practice of adding children to existing benefits. Oodles is spoken and written about child poverty, particularly by the Prime Minister who appointed herself Minister of Child Poverty Reduction in 2017. But the fact that 6,000 children are added to an existing benefit and a further 3-4,000 are reliant on welfare by their first birthday never rates a mention. The numbers have varied only slightly over the past 30 years and persist at very high levels. One in ten babies goes home from hospital to a benefit- dependent family.

The links between welfare dependence from birth and poor, if not disastrous outcomes, have now been well-explored by institutions like AUT and Treasury. The latter identified 4 indicators:

1)    a finding of abuse or neglect;
2)    spending most of their lifetime supported by benefits;
3)    having a parent who’d received a community or custodial sentence; and
4)    a mother with no formal qualifications

Using retrospective data they were able to predict outcomes:

“Compared to children with none of the four indicators, children aged 0-5 years with two or more of the four indicators are:

eight times more likely to have contact with Youth Justice services before age 18 (14% compared to 2%)
three times more likely to leave school with no qualifications (36% compared to 13%)
six times more likely to receive benefits for more than two years before the age of 21 (20% compared to 3%)
 – ten times more likely to spend time in jail before the age of 21 (6% compared to 0.6%)
four times more likely to receive benefits for more than five years when they are aged 25-34 years (21% compared to 5%).”

72% of the children with all four indicators were Maori. These heightened risks lie at the heart of the country’s ongoing inter-generational failure.

It is a logical conclusion to draw that reducing the incidence of child benefit dependence is a desirable goal. But the PM doesn’t agree. And neither do the Greens. For them, increasing the income provided by benefits is the most important aim.

Labour has already headed down this road by substantially increasing child tax credits and introducing a whole new payment, Best Start, for children aged 0-2. The Greens want to develop on this by universalising and increasing Best Start to $100 weekly,  a $110 top-up for sole parents, and “no stand-down periods, no deduction of child support and no sanctions” (i.e. no individual  responsibility).

ACT, on the other hand, has firmly focused their policy on the phenomenon of children being born onto welfare and not infrequently spending their entire lives there. They point out that it isn’t acceptable for these families to keep having children when other families wait and sacrifice, and sometimes never have their own or additional children. More to the point, it is entirely unacceptable for children to be carelessly thrown into environments that harm them and rob them of their potential.

ACT’s policy says that if someone already on a benefit adds another child their benefit income will thereafter be managed. Rent and utilities will be paid direct, with the large part of the remainder of their benefit loaded onto an electronic card to be used in specified retail outlets. Work and Income already has the technology to do this. They operate income management for Youth and Young Parent beneficiaries in this fashion.

Under this regime children should be guaranteed a secure roof over their heads instead of the insecure transience resulting from unpaid rents, evictions and homelessness. Their schooling would be less interrupted with increased geographical stability. They should have adequate food in their tummies in and out of term time (not assured under school lunch programmes).  Their  mother may be encouraged to take advantage of the fully- subsidised, highly effective,  long-acting contraceptives now available, ameliorating the overcrowding which is a significant factor in New Zealand’s horribly high rate of rheumatic fever. Perhaps most importantly their parent(s) will actually decide working is a better option if they want agency over their income. There is a risk caregivers will try to supplement their incomes in other undesirable, illegal  ways but no policy is risk free, and this almost certainly already happens to some degree.

Increasingly throwing money at dysfunctional families provides no assurance parents will suddenly become better budgeters, or not simply spend more on harmful behaviours. Gambling and substance abuse don’t just hurt the parent. They hurt the child directly (damage in the womb, physical abuse or neglect under the influence) not to mention indirectly through parental role-modelling that normalizes bad behaviours, especially violence, to their children.

The two approaches to child benefit dependence are a world apart. One continues the ‘freedom’ of the adult to use taxpayer’s money as they wish; the other prioritizes the best interests of the child -their right to security, stability and safety – or, as ACT puts it, what the taxpayer thinks they are paying for.

The country cannot go on merely paying lip-service to the idea of ‘breaking the cycle’. Now is not the time for more of the same. More than ever New Zealand cannot afford the social cost and lost potential that occurs monotonously in an easily identifiable portion of every generation.

ACT and the Greens present very clear alternatives in their beliefs and policy, and while neither will form the next government on their own, either could be an influential part of it One promotes the best interests of the child, while the other promotes the best interests of the so-called ‘grown-ups’ euphemistically called ‘caregivers’ – I know which one I will be supporting.