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Dr Muriel Newman

Time to have your say on welfare

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In its Green Paper for Vulnerable Children, the government estimates that 15 percent of children under the age of 18 are particularly vulnerable. By that they mean that “without significant support and intervention they will not thrive, belong or achieve”. That’s 163,000 children who are at risk of poor life outcomes, such as learning and behavioural difficulties, mental and physical health problems, drug and alcohol dependency, criminal activity, imprisonment, poor education achievement and employability.

However, in spite of outlining their difficulties, the paper does not provide the sort of background information on these 163,000 children that would help the public better understand the nature of the problem. For instance, information that would shed light on what is causing this child abuse crisis would include a breakdown of their age and ethnicity, the number of families that are involved, what part of the country they live in, whether they are the victims of intergenerational welfare dependency, how many live in families without fathers, whether their parents are married, separated, in de-facto relationships, or single, and so on.

This Green Paper is essentially a discussion document that is asking for public feedback on how to best reduce New Zealand’s child abuse crisis. Every year more and more children are harmed, sometimes killed, by those they should be able to rely on for love and protection. Sadly, however, the focus of this paper is more on the nature of the interventions that should be in place to support vulnerable children – rather than on addressing the key issue of how to best reduce the numbers of children who are being harmed in the first place. In other words it asks how to better resource the ‘child protection industry’ to become more effective, instead of asking what we can do to ensure the child protection industry is not needed at all!

Don’t get me wrong – asking for suggestions to better support vulnerable children is no bad thing, given the scale of the abuse and neglect. But the point is that unless there is a proper focus on the causes of this child abuse crisis and changes made to prevent child abuse from occurring in the first place, the numbers of children whose lives are ruined will continue to grow.

At the heart of this matter is a simple proposition. If every child born in New Zealand was born to a loving and stable family, then the child abuse crisis would largely disappear. So the question becomes, why are children born into families that are not loving and stable? Is it a lack of contraception and sex education? Hardly – these matters are already taught in schools to children at a very young age. In fact many people worry that sex education is taught to children who are far too young and that there is too much emphasis on it in schools, so it is unlikely that pregnancies occur because of ignorance.

The most likely reason that so many women are having babies in situations that are far from ideal for the future health and safety of their child is that these days the consequences of unplanned pregnancies from unstable relationships are to their personal advantage. Once a baby is born – in the absence of a breadwinner for the family – the government will step in to provide the mother with a stable income until the child is eighteen years old. In addition housing assistance will be available. If you are an unskilled woman with few prospects, the provision of a stable living income for the next 18 years, along with accommodation assistance, is too hard for many to ignore.

In other words, a key factor in New Zealand’s child abuse crisis is that our social welfare safety net provides incentives that generously reward single mothers for having children – irrespective of whether it’s in the best interests of the child.

I’m talking of course about the Domestic Purposes Benefit – a benefit promoted by radical feminists in the seventies, who believed that women could bring up children better on their own. All in all it has been a disastrous social experiment that has trapped women in long term dependency, pushed generations of fathers out of the lives of their children, and has created a child abuse crisis. That it has been allowed to continue on for almost forty years is an indictment of those politicians who have turned a blind eye to the consequences and failed to question the soundness of the policy – no doubt from fear of getting offside with the vocal feminist lobby.

Lindsay Mitchell, this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, has long campaigned for an overhaul of the DPB. In her article How welfare harms children – which will form the basis of her submission on the Green Paper – she outlines some of the effects that benefit availability has had on marriage and births:

“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. Only 12 percent of children live with both biological parents who are not married. The trend towards more unmarried births has been steadily upwards and we can expect that, this year, the proportion will reach 50 percent. In 2004, unmarried births made up 76 percent of all Maori births.”

Lindsay also found that “The rate of adolescent (under 18) Maori births is around four to five times that of non-Maori. As a strong deterrent to child-bearing, benefit 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.”

The Ministry of Social Development reinforces this point on their website: “A sole parent, with two dependent children, renting in Auckland on DPB could receive approximately $580 per week including Accommodation Supplement and other allowances”.

It must be emphasised here that a large proportion of the women who go onto the DPB do not, of course, neglect their children. The problem is that a core of them do, and knowing that we cannot allow this benefit to carry on in its present form. Instead, support should be provided in a different way – as it is in most other countries.

New Zealand is one of only a handful of nations that has a stand-alone sole parent benefit. Most other countries do not have an equivalent to the Domestic Purposes Benefit but provide support to sole parents in ways that encourage them back into the workforce so they become the provider for their child – not the taxpayer. The US used to have a DPB-equivalent, but it was abolished in the mid nineties by President Clinton once the damage to children had been recognised. Instead, temporary support is now provided to single parents in ways that do not cause harm to their children.

In Germany, they have a different approach altogether. In a recent Breaking Views blog Nudge, nudge, here come the Germans, welfare commentator Peter Saunders explained that the German Civil Code has established a principle called the ‘solidarity of the generations’, which stipulates that ‘lineal relatives’ – children, parents and grandparents – have a legal obligation to maintain each other. The primary obligation to support dependent children falls on parents, but if they lack the means or will to pay, then grandparents become liable. Before taxpayers are asked to contribute to the costs of maintaining other people’s children, German law insists that the extended family should draw on its own resources.That means that if a father defaults on his child support payments, both sets of grandparents are required to pay. And because grandparents know they may become financially liable for their grandchildren, they do all they can to ensure that the parents discharge their responsibilities properly in the first place.

Interestingly, the German Civil Code also stipulates that both parents are joint custodians of their children, which means that when a relationship breaks down, they are jointly responsible for their care. This is a form of shared parenting that is the law in a growing number of countries around the world including Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands, many US States and Belgium. Under shared parenting, the liability for caring for children falls on the separating parents, not taxpayers.

In New Zealand, while many separating families voluntarily engage in shared parenting, with both parents working out arrangements to best suit the child and cooperating in their upbringing, a large proportion of them turn to the DPB and the taxpayer for support. When parents can’t agree, the Family Court will often award sole custody of the child to the mother – largely cutting the father out of the life of his child. Under this arrangement the mother gets the child and access to the DBP, while the father gets child support liabilities – hardly a fair outcome! In an age where keeping parents engaged with their children is more important than ever, New Zealand should follow those other enlightened countries and adopt shared parenting as well.

Independent of the Green Paper, the public currently has a chance to have a say on these matters through the government’s review of the Family Court. In her Breaking Views blog How a Financial Crisis Might Turn Into Much Needed Reforms, family law reform advocate Joanna Moss outlines the issues that are being covered in the review explaining, “Previous Minister of Justice Simon Power ordered the review when it became obvious that the costs had gone up 63 percent over the period 2004/2010 and the number of cases had remained roughly static. The figures showed clearly that cases were taking longer to resolve and that the Care of Children Act was the chief culprit… Currently the system provides perverse incentives on court service providers to increase the number of cases, drag out cases, to make them more complicated and to prevent settlement.”

If you feel strongly that our laws need to be changed so that New Zealand is a better and safer place to raise children, please consider making submissions on the Green Paper for Vulnerable Children before Tuesday 28th February and the Family Court Review by Wednesday 29th February. Submissions can be as long or short as you like and both can be made on-line.