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Lindsay Mitchell

Welfare needs more than a bit of tweaking

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John Key has told the country he doesn’t want to see any 16 or 17 year-olds on the benefit, a sentiment I am sure will find a good deal of sympathy, especially among National voters. The problem is, only the Independent Youth Benefit has been mentioned. That is the benefit usually available to unemployed youth.

But there is a lesser known benefit called the Emergency Maintenance Allowance (which gets it somewhat archaic name from much earlier times when women who had failed to secure maintenance from the father of their child required monetary assistance). This is the benefit given to 16 and 17 year-old mothers who have no other form of financial support. It pays the same as the DPB.

There are typically five or six hundred girls on this benefit at any given time. The numbers have been rising slightly as the teenage birth rate climbs, the downward trend having reversed in 2003.

There is no question that teenage childbirth presents multiple problems. Adolescent birth (under 18) is even more troublesome. Even the Labour government conceded this;

Childbearing among young adolescents has been associated with a number of negative outcomes for both mother and child including low child birth weight, increased risk of infant mortality, reduced maternal educational attainment, reduced participation in paid work, and increased risk of long-term reliance on income support. The 2001 Social Report.

In my paper, Maori and Welfare, published by the New Zealand Business Roundtable and serialised at NZCPR from today, United States research is referred to showing a strong correlation between teenage child birth and homicide rates; adolescent birth and the likelihood of those children becoming prison inmates in later life.

The significance of this research should not be ignored in New Zealand. As the Maori teenage birth rate is over three times the NZ European, and the Maori adolescent birth rate almost 5 times higher, it may go some way to explaining why our prison population is 50 percent Maori. Certainly there is a research project going begging. Whether New Zealand, even under National, will continue to be too politically correct to take it up is another matter. I can’t imagine the champion of Maori procreation, Tariana Turia, being terribly keen on the idea.

Every year thousands (5,000 in 2008) of teenage girls give birth and over half go on welfare. Because they have failed to complete their education or attain work skills, welfare traps them. Their income is comparable to any working wage they can command, so they get stuck. The only way to increase their benefit income is to add to their family. Many do.

At least half (the Ministry of Social Development can only supply historical data relating to beneficiaries 35 or younger) of the single parents currently on welfare first received a benefit as a teenager. Clearly, in this context, the benefit is not a safety net. It is a lifestyle. Not a particularly pleasant one. Being bound long-term to welfare often involves a financial struggle from one benefit day to the next; getting deeper and deeper in debt; falling fou

l of various authorities; finding temporary relief through drinking and drug taking; finding temporary relief and hope in front of the pokies; getting involved in criminal activity to supplement the benefit; forming relationships that produce more children but turn abusive – financially or physically; being powerless and vulnerable. This is the lifestyle too many Maori are slipping into or defaulting to via an early entry into the benefit system.

Here’s my worry. In his well-intentioned move to limit welfare access to the young Mr Key may inadvertently worsen the problem. Stopping access to the Independent Youth Benefit may incentivise more females onto the EMA. This is further compounded by the availability of the unemployment benefit to under-18s if they are in a de facto relationship and have a dependent child.

While being eligible for welfare too young is one problem, the bigger issue is that of the safety net becoming a way of life. The only way that is going to stop is if New Zealand puts strict time limits on benefits for those people quite capable of supporting themselves. Key needs to take a page out of (democratic) President Clinton’s book and promise New Zealand that he will end welfare as we know it. Most New Zealanders are not satisfied with the status quo.