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Dr Muriel Newman

Welfare is a risk factor for children

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A debate is currently raging over the underlying cause of child abuse. It follows the disturbing revelation that five out of every six children who are abused or neglected before they are five years old, live in families on welfare. This rate of abuse is ten times higher for children living in families on welfare than for children whose parents had never been on welfare. It shows what the advocates of welfare reform have always known, that long-term welfare is a serious risk factor for children.

The results were produced by the University of Auckland for the government’s White Paper on child abuse. Some 52,000 children born between 2003 and 2006 to parents on welfare were monitored over a five year period. By matching Child Youth and Family data on substantiated cases of child abuse with Work and Income data, they were able to confirm that most child abuse occurred in families on welfare.

This research will be used to establish an early alert risk predictor system for 30,000 of New Zealand’s most vulnerable children. Utilising 130 different risk factors, it will warn social workers, doctors, teachers, and health workers when a child is at risk of abuse.

Opponents of welfare reform, including the Labour, Green, and Mana parties, as well as many of the organisations that work in the field, claim that a prime cause of child abuse is poverty. They say that if benefits were more generous, then welfare parents wouldn’t abuse their children. That simply does not stack up.

A study carried out by the Ministry of Social Development in 2002 investigated the wellbeing of poor children to find out whether the source of income made a difference.1 They found that poor children in families reliant on welfare had lower living standards and were at far greater risk of negative outcomes, than those in families where their parents were on low incomes but worked. In other words, it was the source of income, rather than amount of income, that made the difference.

The report also pointed out, that welfare had created an environment where children were being raised by young single parents with no work skills, no formal qualifications, and an unstable home life. We should not be surprised that in such situations children are at risk of abuse and neglect – in fact we should expect it.

In 1993 a British study “Broken Homes and Battered Children” examined the impact that fragmented family structures could have on children. They found that the incidence of child abuse was 20 times higher for children living with their cohabiting parents, and 33 times higher for children living with their mother and her boyfriend, than for children living with their biological, married parents. With regard to child deaths, the situation was even worse. Children living in households in which the child’s biological mother was cohabiting with someone who was unrelated to the child were 73 times more likely to be killed than those living in a traditional, intact, married family.2

Two years ago, the Minister of Social Development Paula Bennett confronted iwi leaders, asking them to take responsibility for the appalling child abuse statistics within their iwi – instead of turning a blind eye and leaving it to the government. In her speech she said, “Last year 56 Maori children were hospitalised because of abuse. Of the nearly 21,000 of substantiated cases of neglect and abuse 11,003 were Maori and four died. Those four dead Maori children account for half of all the child deaths by abuse last year. Only a quarter of New Zealand’s children are Maori, but yet half of the children who are killed through family violence, are Maori.”3

As at June 2012, of the 112,262 sole parents on the Domestic Purposes Benefit, 42.7 percent identify as Maori. This means that tens of thousands of Maori children are being raised in unstable single parent families where they are extremely vulnerable to abuse. It is family structure that is the main risk factor for these children. This disastrous situation that has been encouraged by Maori leadership who have long called for their people “to go forth and multiply”.4

All of the evidence points to the fact that the more that can be done to ensure that New Zealand children are brought up in families where their parents work for a living rather than being dependent on welfare, the better their outcomes will be. That’s why the government’s commitment to welfare reform is so important. Thanks largely to the leadership and courage of Prime Minister John Key and Welfare Minister Paula Bennet the most comprehensive welfare reform in decades is now underway.

Just this week new work obligations for beneficiaries with children have been introduced whereby those with young children at school must be available for part-time work – or full-time work if their children are aged 14 years and older. Any woman who has more children while on the benefit will be given a one year reprieve from the work obligations, in line with parental leave standards. In order to help prevent unwanted pregnancies, grants will also be made available for long-term contraceptives not only for beneficiaries, but their older daughters as well.

New Zealand’s welfare system wasn’t always the dependency trap that it is today. The vision of Sir Michael Joseph Savage in the 1930s was for a safety net to help those who were genuinely unable to support themselves. For all but the chronically incapacitated, they wanted welfare to provide temporary assistance – a springboard back into work, independence and a better future.

For more than thirty years the system worked well. But in the end, the politicians just couldn’t leave it alone, and by the early seventies they had introduced three main changes that fundamentally transformed the safety net into a hammock – easy to get on but hard to get off. Firstly, benefit levels were increased to be close to a working wage, which meant there was little incentive to get a job. Secondly, changing benefits from being available only to people of ‘good moral character and sober habits’, to becoming a universal entitlement, meant that taxpayers were forced to subsidise destructive and criminal behaviours. Thirdly, the seeds of family breakdown were sown when benefits were made available to single mothers and women who wanted to separate from their husbands to raise their children on their own.

These changes skewed the incentives in the welfare system creating long-term inter-generational benefit dependency and an underclass culture. Severe social pathologies emerged including child abuse and neglect, violence and crime, drug and alcohol addictions, a lack of educational aspirations, and habitual financial mismanagement whereby benefit money was spent on alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and gambling, rather than on looking after children. It is this serious social dysfunction that National’s welfare reforms are trying to repair.

During their nine years in office, Helen Clark’s Labour Government deepened the welfare trap. They removed the need for women on the DPB to look for work once their children went to school, they removed the three week stand-down period for those who quit their job to go onto the DPB, and they extended eligibility for the DPB from when the youngest child was 14 to 18 years old. They scrapped work for the dole, removed work test requirements for the Sickness Benefit, and did away with mandatory budgeting assistance for beneficiaries who demanded excessive numbers of hardship grants.

As a result of these changes only one in three beneficiaries were ever required to undergo any form of work testing. Is it any wonder then that during the economic boom of the mid-2000s when the labour market was critically short of unskilled workers, welfare numbers remained persistently high?

The next stage in the government’s welfare reform programme, the Social Security (Benefit Categories and Work Focus) Amendment Bill, is now in front of Parliament’s Social Services Select Committee. Submissions on the Bill close on November 1st and can be made on-line HERE.

The Bill is designed to fundamentally shift the focus of the welfare system towards supporting beneficiaries into paid work. It abolishes the old benefit categories to realign them with a work focus. “Jobseeker Support” replaces the dole, the Sickness Benefit, and the DPB and Widows Benefit for women with children aged 14 years or over. Welfare recipients and their spouses or partners will be work tested, although exemptions will clearly be available for those who are incapacitated.

“Sole Parent Support” replaces the DPB and Widows Benefit for parents with children under the age of 14. It requires parents with pre-schoolers to prepare for employment, and once the youngest child reaches school age, their parent is expected to take on part-time work.

“Supported Living” replaces the Invalid Benefit – for people who are genuinely unable to support themselves due to sickness, injury or disability – as well as the DPB for the care of the sick or infirm.

The Bill also introduces social obligations as a condition of benefit receipt. Beneficiary parents will be required to enrol children in early childhood education once they turn three – no doubt to turn around the appalling situation whereby children from welfare families turn up at school not only unable to count and recite the alphabet, but unable to speak coherently. In addition, parents will need to ensure their children are enrolled with a primary health care provider, have successfully completed their “Well Child” checks, and attend school.

The Bill also provides for serious sanctions against beneficiaries who fail pre-employment drugs tests, or who fail to ‘resolve’ arrest warrants.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is Lindsay Mitchell, a welfare analyst who, in her article, Latest Welfare Reforms – no cause for hysteria, describes how critics claim the new rules are “brutal and pointless”.

“The language is extreme. It’s used deliberately. It’s attention seeking. It plays to the media and disaffected alike. Drama is marketable. And inadequacy is always looking to shift blame elsewhere.

“Less visible behind this political protest are the children. Why resist enrolling a child with a doctor? The case for compulsory childcare enrolment is less certain. But the need for a child to have the example of a working parent is paramount. A parent creates the life template for their child. Growing up on welfare shapes children’s expectations. For instance, that money will come out of the ATM for doing what Mum does. Being on a benefit.”

It is long past time that the damage that long-term welfare causes children was recognised. It has taken years of advocacy to get to this stage where some of those destructive incentives in the welfare system will be changed. Of course, more needs to be done to encourage job growth – so that parents moving off welfare can get a good job and build a decent future for their children. But that is a different subject for a future column. For now, I say well done to those responsible for putting in place reforms that finally put children first so that the cycle of intergenerational dependency that has been so destructive for so many generations of children, can finally be broken.