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Dr Muriel Newman

Does marriage matter?

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The rate of marriage in New Zealand is continuing to decline. According to Statistics New Zealand the rate of marriage has plummeted over the last 40 years by 72 percent from 45.5 per 1,000 people aged 16 years and over in 1971, to 12.45 last year. While the population has grown from 2.9 million to 4.4 million over that period, the number of marriages has fallen from 27,199 in 1971 to 20,940 in 2010.

Meanwhile the age at which couples commit to marriage has been on the rise over the years, with the median age for first time brides increasing from 20.8 years in 1971 to 28.2 years in 2010, and for first time grooms, from 23 years to 29.9 years.

While growing numbers of people now regard marriage as symbolic, they are overlooking the deeper significance and benefit of one of society’s oldest institutions. The traditional married family has not only shown itself to be the best environment in which to raise children, but it is also a leading safeguard against economic hardship. As marriage rates fall, so the number of de-facto and single parent families rise. The problem is, however, that the instability of these types of family structure often causes serious emotional and health-related stress for mothers, fathers and their children, as well as creating financial obstacles.

Robert Rector, a Senior Research Fellow at the Washington-based think tank the Heritage Foundation, recently published a report, Married Fathers: America’s Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty, that quantified these matters. In response to widespread concerns about child poverty, he pointed out that marriage has been proved to be extremely successful at alleviating poverty: “Being raised in a married family reduced a child’s probability of living in poverty by about 80 percent”. He found that being married was so powerful in fighting poverty that it had the same effect on family incomes as adding five or six years to a parent’s level of education.1

In his report, Robert Rector highlighted the positive influence on child wellbeing of having a married father in the home. As well as the obvious financial benefit that comes from having a breadwinner in the family, he found children from homes without a father are more than twice as likely as children from married homes, to be arrested for a juvenile crime; twice as likely to be treated for emotional and behavioural problems; roughly twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from school; and a third more likely to drop out before completing high school. He also found that the disadvantage persists into adulthood, with children from broken homes being three times more likely to end up in jail by the time they reach the age of 30, with girls more than twice as likely to have a child without being married – thereby setting the scene for on-going intergenerational disadvantage – than children raised in intact married families.

Between 1913 and 1960, 95 percent of all New Zealand births were to married parents. But, largely as a result of social policy law changes over the years, by 2009 the number of births to married parents had dropped to 51.5 percent. This trend for an increasing number of children to be born outside of marriage represents a major challenge for society as the outlook for children raised by un-married parents – especially sole parents – is substantially worse than for children raised by parents who are married.

As described by Sir Michael Hardie Boys, then Governor General of New Zealand and former Court of Appeal Judge, “Fatherless families are more likely to give rise… to the risks of being abused, of being emotionally, even physically scarred, of dropping out of school, of becoming pregnant, of living on the streets, of being hooked on alcohol or drugs, of being caught up in gangs, in crime, of being unemployable, of having no ambition, no vision, no hope, at risk of handing down hopelessness to the next generation, at risk of suicide.”

While there are, of course, many children raised by parents who are not married who do exceptionally well, and others with married parents who have extremely poor outcomes, the conclusions reached about the fracturing of marriage and the traditional family should not be taken lightly. That is especially the case given New Zealand’s crisis of child abuse where 57 serious abuse and neglect cases are confirmed every day, and the appalling rate of teenage dysfunction, which shows New Zealand not only leads the world in youth suicide – 71 teenagers killed themselves during 2008/09 – but ranks amongst the worst in OECD countries for risk factors such as youth drinking, smoking, and teenage pregnancy.

The problems associated with teenagers have become so serious that last year the Prime Minister asked his Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, to investigate why it is that young people in New Zealand are doing so poorly in their transition to adulthood, compared to those in other developed countries. In his 318 page report “Improving the transition: reducing social and psychological morbidity during adolescence”, Sir Peter claims that 20 percent of young people are at risk of poor outcomes.2 Unfortunately, rather than getting to the heart of the matter by identifying those public policies that are causing the harm to children, he has tended to recommend more bureaucratic interventions aimed at addressing the symptoms.

A case in point is the chapter on Families and Children, where the problems of family breakdown are discussed. The report fails to acknowledge the crucial importance of marriage and fatherhood to a young person’s wellbeing and stops short of identifying the policies that are making the situation worse. There are a raft of policies known to be undermining marriage and weakening the bonds of fatherhood, including the Property Relationship Act which undermines marriage by giving the same legal rights to de-facto couples as married couples, the Domestic Purposes Benefit which undermines marriage by paying a parent with children to split up from their partner, the Care of Children Act which undermines parenting by awarding sole custody of children to one parent, the Child Support Act which imposes financial penalties on the parent who has just lost custody of their children, and the new anti-smacking law which creates tension in the family by undermining parental authority and child discipline.

Family breakdown has become a huge “industry” in New Zealand that is estimated to cost taxpayers well over $1 billion a year – not only in welfare costs associated with the DPB, but also in health, police, corrections, housing and justice costs. In particular, the total cost of running the Family Court – the specialist court established in 1981 to deal with family breakdown – has increased by 63 percent over the last 5 years from $84 million in 2005 to $137 million last year. It is this escalation in cost that has finally forced the government to call for a review of the operation of the Family Court. However, the Cabinet paper explains “It is not the purpose of the review to examine individual family law Acts and the policy rationale that underpins them”.3 In other words, while New Zealand’s system of family law has, for three decades, encouraged the breakdown of families, alienating one of the parents from their children and creating battles over access as well as DPB and child support funding, the politicians are happy to tweak a broken system in order to save money – but they are not prepared to fix the system in order to save children.

I asked this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, family law reform campaigner Bruce Tichbon for his views on the forthcoming Family Court review. In his article Family Court review a good start – but real vision is needed, he explained:

“New Zealand’s family law policy is disjointed and unworkable. The Care of Children Act itself is tantamount to a declaration of war between separating parents, and another major source of the high costs experienced in the Family Court. The problem is that it does not give a clear status to biological mothers and fathers that they are equal parents. Instead it encourages ‘day-to-day care’ to be given to one parent (it used to be called ‘custody’) and the other parent has ‘contact’ (it used to be called ‘access’). The outcome is that most often one parent is made the winner of the children; the other the loser.

“Family law over the past decades has been largely ideologically driven, and used to redefine New Zealand social policy and hence society itself. A preference for maternal sole custody has driven a major downgrading of the family, enabled by the transfer of tens of billions of tax dollars via the DPB and other benefits. Property and child support legislation has resulted in the transfer of tens of billions of dollars (mostly from men to women). Yet such policy is specifically excluded from the review. The focus seems to be just on government costs.

“If Mr Power wants to cut the cost of the Family Court by half at a stroke he should help end the war between parents and introduce equal shared parenting, where the starting point for biological parents is that they are equals in terms of care of their children. This removes all the uncertainty about which parent is to be the winner and which one is the loser, and hence it removes most of the Family Court combat. ACT MP Muriel Newman sought to introduce such common sense law a decade ago. She placed the Shared Parenting Bill before Parliament, but the then Labour led government voted it down. It is salutary to reflect on the billions of dollars that could have been saved in the past decade on Family Court and benefit expenses if Muriel’s Bill had been allowed to become law. The best Mr Power can hope to save with his current review is trivial by comparison.”

If shared parenting had been adopted and was the norm in New

Zealand – as it is in an increasing number of jurisdictions around the world including the USA, France, Belgium, Holland, and Sweden – so that each parent retains an equal responsibility for raising their children after family breakdown, much of the cost of family law and most of the battles over access to children and the benefit, would have disappeared. Fewer families would break up and children would do better by having both mum and dad – as well as both sets of grandparents and their wider family – actively involved in their lives. In fact, it would be a ‘win-win’ all round.

All that is needed are our politicians to realise that in the long run, band-aid solutions to complex social problems benefit no-one. As far as policies undermining marriage and fatherhood are concerned, proper reform is not only urgently needed, but is essential. Turning around the current trends would pay huge dividends, as the negative outcomes that are presently afflicting our children begin to decline.

PS. Below are extracts from my First Reading speech on the Shared Parenting Bill. The warnings have certainly come to pass. The full Parliamentary debate is here.

The Shared Parenting Bill is based on the notion that when parents separate or divorce, the children deserve, and, in fact, have the right, to continue their developmental years with two parents. These parents should be equal in their responsibility for the upbringing of their children, unless there is a compelling reason why one parent is not fit. In such cases, where children are genuinely at risk, this bill provides for all the protections and safeguards of our present sole-custody law.

The present custodial system takes those two parents, who in most cases want to do all that they can for their child, and pits them against each other. One becomes the winner, gaining custody of the child, while the other becomes the loser, a mere visitor in the child’s life. The biggest loser, though, is the child, for it is the child who walks into a courtroom with two parents and walks out with one. Who can seriously believe that that is the best we can do as a society? With the tragic consequences of inadequate parenting evident all around us, we can no longer afford a legal system that discards one of the two most important people in a child’s life—his or her parents.

As a result of this winner-takes-all system, a quarter of all children whose parents separate or divorce lose all meaningful contact with their non-custodial parent. A further 40 percent see that parent for only a few hours every month. More children currently lose a parent through separation or divorce in New Zealand every 6 weeks than the number of children who lost a parent through the entire period of the Second World War. New Zealand is already one of the industrialised world’s leaders in sole parent families. We also lead in the rate of youth suicide.

As parliamentarians, we cannot ignore the fact that within the current system New Zealand children are not doing well. We cannot ignore the consequences of a system that awards custody to one parent as a matter of course, denying children their fundamental birthright—to have the ongoing support of both their parents. We cannot ignore the fact that currently we have the most under-fathered generation in the history of the Western World. If present trends continue, by the year 2010 half the European and three-quarters of the Maori infants under 12 months old will live in families where there are no fathers. As a consequence of this lack, such children will be vulnerable and at risk of poor outcomes in life, from the day of their birth.