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Lindsay Mitchell

How welfare harms children

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The matter of children and the benefit system has long concerned me.

It 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.

Firstly, short stays on welfare should be differentiated from long-term dependence.

Not 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.”[1]

Clearly, the majority of these children, who would now be aged 18 or 19, have grown into functioning, well-adjusted young adults.

So what does 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).[2] 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 years.[3]

Why is long-term dependence harmful? Is it poverty?

Today, 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 outcomes generally, but research shows:

“…poor 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 outcomes.”[4]

In 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….”

So 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).

According to a further source, the Household Incomes Survey, one in three Maori children lives in poverty compared to one in four Pacific children.[5] 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?

So 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 grandmother’s care.

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…. Persistently poor 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.”[6]

While “parental characteristics” make some more likely to be on welfare, benefits, in turn, support or indulge self-destructive behaviours.

So 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 dependence. An 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.[7]

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 backgrounds. The best predictor at birth was sole parenthood.

There 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 upwards.

* In 2004, unmarried births made up 76 percent of all Maori births.

Some 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 case.

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.

The 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.[8] My update on this via questions asked under the Official Information Act found that by 2010 the figure had grown to 46 percent.

I 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 government.

Nevertheless, the parallel rises in the uptake of welfare for single parents, and unmarried births, is striking. Is there a statistically proven association?

European research shows an increase in yearly benefits of 1000 euros is estimated to increase the incidence of single mother families by about 2 percent. [9]United States research showed a 50 percent increase in the monthly value of AFDC and food stamps led to a 43 percent increase in unmarried births.[10]The 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 of).

So the second way welfare causes damage to children is by encouraging father absence.

However, the situation is not quite as black and white as that.

Some 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.

Mothers with 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.

So not all so-called single parents are, in fact, single. Not all so-called ‘fatherless’ families are.

A brother of a client I worked with, “… only goes with single mums because they have money and a place to stay.” At 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.

Once again, putting aside the anecdotal evidence, is there statistical evidence that supports this scenario? Regarding partner violence:

“Women who were beneficiaries had risks over four times the average for all women.” NZ Crime and Safety Survey, 2006[11]

To experience partner 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[12]:

* a degree of companionship demonstrating an emotional commitment and

* financial interdependence

* 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.[13] 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.

Sally L. Satel, a psychiatrist and lecturer at the Yale School of Medicine says, about similar circumstances in the United States,

Consider: 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.[14]

A further consequence of this is, of course, children get caught in the crossfire.

What do statistics tell us about the correlation between benefit dependence and the incidence of child abuse or neglect?

According 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 income-tested beneficiaries”[15] 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.

About 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.”[16]

So 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,

“The cause of harm to children is poverty” therefore,

“The solution is to RAISE BENEFITS”

But, 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:

“…every 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.”[17]

(Obviously 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 quo acceptable.

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 Group:

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.

Some age-specific statistics from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner show that,

“The 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.” [18]

The 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,

“A 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 Mori 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.” [19]

As 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.)

What else should we be doing?

Short 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 institutionalised.

The 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.

Key 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.[20] 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 Life[21] 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.

Finally, in addition to welfare reform and more adoption, more education is needed.

The never, ever shake a baby is a worthy campaign. Why not a never, ever make a baby on a benefit campaign?

And 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 Mori cultural identity had odds of early pregnancy and parenthood that were over seven times higher than those of non-Mori… These results were evident for both males and females.[22]

Young 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.

So, to summarise my suggestions:

4 Major Reforms.

* Time limits for most

* No eligibility for the very young

* More adoption


And 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.

[1] Social Policy Journal Of New Zealand Te Puna Whakaaro » Issue 19 December 2002 » Children On Benefit: Who Stays Longest?

[2] Understanding sub-groups of sole parents receiving main benefits, http://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/research/sole-parenting/index.html

[3] Lifecourse factors associated with time spent receiving main benefits in young adulthood, http://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/research/sole-parenting/index.html

[4] Children in poor families: does the source of income change the picture? Social Policy Journal, Issue 18, 2002

[5] 2011 Household Incomes Report: Background and summary of key findings, http://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/monitoring/household-incomes/index.html (last accessed February 13, 2012)

[6] Children in poor families: does the source of income change the picture? Social Policy Journal, Issue 18, 2002

[7] Jaffee SR, 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

[8] Long-term Benefit Dependency: The Issues, August 2010, http://ips.ac.nz/WelfareWorkingGroup/Index.html

[9] 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)

[11] Family Violence Statistics Report, August 2009, pg 143, http://www.nzfamilies.org.nz/sites/default/files/downloads/family-violence-statistics-report.pdf (last accessed February 15, 2012)

[12] De Facto Decisions Review Background, New Zealand Government Press Release, 30 August, 2002

[13] Steady Progress in Benefit Review, Ministry of Social Development, 8 April, 2004

[14] “The Abuse Excuse”, Sally Satel, Women’s Quarterly (Winter 1998), pg 17

[15] http://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/journals-and-magazines/social-policy-journal/spj07/benefit-status-of-caregivers-of-children-and-young-people.html

[16] http://www.workandincome.govt.nz/community/a-z-grants-and-other-help/family-violence-intervention-programme.html

[17] Whiteford, P. 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 Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/233310267230

[18] Death and serious injury from assault of children aged under 5 years in Aotearoa New Death and serious injury from assault of children aged under 5 years in Aotearoa New Zealand: A review of international literature and recent findings http://www.occ.org.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0016/6343/OCC_Deathand_seriousinjury2009_040609.pdf

[19] http://www.corrections.govt.nz/research/over-representation-of-maori-in-the-criminal-justice-system/3.0-early-life-environmental-influences/3.2-family-structure%2c-context-and-processes/3.2.htm l#1 (last accessed February 7, 2010)

[20] http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/420491/Number-of-babies-available-for-adoption-falls-sharply

[21] http://www.msd.govt.nz/documents/about-msd-and-our-work/newsroom/media-releases/news/2010/cyf-why-you-should-care-19-08.pdf

[22] http://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/journals-and-magazines/social-policy-journal/spj37/37-cultural-identity-and-pregnancy-parenthood-by-age-20.html