I expect child poverty to be topical again today as the 2012 Childrens Social Health Monitor (link is to 2011 version) is released. There's a fair bit about it in the press already by journalists who have a pre-release. The TV is reporting Jacinda Ardern complaining about one in 5 children being in homes supported solely by a main benefit. It was barely any better under Labour. Even when the unemployment rate had dropped to it's lowest point around 18 percent of children were still on benefits. That's because the DPB is entrenched.
The following is an article I wrote for The Truth which was published the week before last. It's not on-line so reproduced in full below.
BORN ONTO A BENEFIT
A huge amount is said about child poverty, but bugger all about what
By the end of last year 13, 634 of the babies born in the previous
12 months had a parent or caregiver relying on a benefit. Data
supplied under the Official information Act reveals that 48 percent
of these caregivers were Maori. Assuming the ethnicity of dependent
children generally matches the ethnicity of their caregivers, 37
percent of all Maori children born in 2011 were on welfare by the
end of the same year. The corresponding figure for non-Maori was
less than half at 16 percent.
Most of these babies are born directly onto a benefit - usually the
domestic purposes benefit. Some are first births. It's not unusual
for their mothers to initially be dependent on either the sickness
benefit for pregnancy or the dole, then transfer to the DPB with the
newborn in tow. But according to a Cabinet Paper publicly released
earlier this year, in 2010 4,800 births were second (or subsequent)
children being added to an existing DPB. This happens most commonly
in Whangarei, Whakatane, Rotorua, Kawerau and Wairoa, and the rate
at which children are added has also been increasing.
The high rate of NZ children born onto welfare gives rise to
numerous health and social problems down the line, not least abuse
and neglect. We now know thanks to a recent Auckland University
study that 83 percent of substantiated child abuse and neglect cases
concern children who appear in the benefit system before the age of
There is an especial problem with Maori children. Not only are they
more likely to be born onto a benefit, but they are more likely to
have a very young mother who will have difficulty raising her child
away from the sort of environmental risks that result in teenage
parenthood in the first place; a dysfunctional family life, alcohol
and drug abuse, family violence, transience, and crime. A strong
correlation exists between the over-representation of Maori children
on welfare and their marked predominance in many other negative
statistics surrounding poor health and low educational achievement.
Being born onto a benefit does not set them up for life.
Some of these children are going to be a cost to society for their
entire lives. There isn't any equivalent NZ research but American
studies into the backgrounds of prison inmates find many had very
young mothers, were raised on welfare, or in foster care or other
state institutions. That the NZ prison population is half Maori is
almost certainly associated with the very high Maori rate of teenage
birth; almost four times higher than non-Maori. Sadly, it isn't just
the first-born children whose lives are affected, but those who
follow as well.
Back in 2006 New Zealand Medical Association deputy chairman Don
Simmers told a conference that too many women were contemplating
pregnancy on a benefit. It's taken a long time - too long - but the
government has now officially recognised the problem.
Minister for Social Development Paula Bennett believes that work has
both social and economic benefits for parents and their children.
Last month new rules were introduced to require people on the DPB
with a youngest child aged 5 or older to look for and be available
for part-time work. The Minister understands however that some
mothers will try to avoid this new rule by having another baby. As a
consequence, she says, "Sole parents who have another child while on
a benefit will be exempt for [only] one year, in line with parental
leave, before work obligations resume."
Unfortunately, this measure alone leaves loopholes. Cabinet
illustrates the lengths some will go to when identifying children,
"who are moved between households to avoid work expectations." There
is currently no rule that prevents a parent from going off the
benefit for a short period, having another baby, and returning with
the clock starting afresh. This situation could have been avoided by
adopting the US approach which simply time-limits the benefit.
Federal law permits a maximum of 60 months over a lifetime of
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (though individual states
can deviate using their own funds). That regime unequivocally puts
the responsibility firmly on the parent to limit their family size
without totally dumping a safety net.
The other unthinkable work-dodge would be to produce a child
annually. Ironically this outcome would be the exact opposite of
what the government is trying to achieve. Again time-limiting the
amount of welfare available would remove any incentive to go down
Some favour capping the amount of money available to subsequent
children born onto a benefit. Paula Rebstock's Welfare Working Group
considered this option but was persuaded by the Ministry of Social
Development that adverse affects on the child or children might
outweigh any favourable effect on child-bearing patterns amongst
Beneficiary advocates have reacted to Paula Bennett's new rule with
hostility. Auckland Action Against Poverty spokesperson Sue Bradford
says, "We believe that women in this country have the right to
control their own reproduction." This encapsulates the conflict
between the so-called rights of women and the rights of children.
Knowingly bringing a child into the world with no ability to raise
him independently or adequately is hard to justify at any level.
The Norm Kirk government of 1973 which bowed to pressure to provide
statutory assistance for mothers who'd lost the support of a
partner, would have been aghast if afforded a glimpse of a future in
which supposedly single woman were allowed, and even encouraged by
some, to breed on a benefit. Twenty two percent of all babies born
in 2011 were on welfare by Xmas. But even pre-recession, when NZ
briefly enjoyed the lowest unemployment rate in the world during
2007, the percentage only dropped to eighteen. Having babies on a
benefit is part of the NZ culture. That's what's primarily driving
this country's child poverty scandal. In a word, irresponsibility;
irresponsibility of the people who produce the kids, but arguably
worse, irresponsibility of the society that sanctions it.