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Susan St John: Good Intentions Are Not Enough

United Future's family policies deserve thorough and critical scrutiny. It is not enough to have good intentions. We need a proper cost benefit analysis of the new Commission for the Family and a wide discussion of the purpose or the need for it before it proceeds.

There are already academic centres in various universities for the child and family, to say nothing of the research projects already undertaken at great expense in the Ministry of Social Development. How much costly duplication is going to be involved? How much is the structure itself going to cost to run and staff? Will it mean the income improvements for families, that must occur if the costs of child poverty are to be averted, will be delayed yet again while the commission is being established?

And what of United Future's policy on family incomes? Income splitting sounds like a nice way to encourage the nuclear family. Mum can stay home with tax advantages that rise with the level of her husband's income.

But is Peter Dunne to be congratulated on a bold and innovative thought? Possibly this is the most liberal reform contemplated in New Zealand since the advent of non-fault divorce. Like other social reforms such as the DPB it has the power to transform the power balance between men and women in ways possibly not anticipated.

While politicians have the hazy idea of some extra income to support the traditional role of women at home, the advocates of this approach, such as Parents as Partners, are not looking for a tax rebate 'he' takes at the end of the year.

They want full and actual splitting, so that she receives one half of his income as a wage, on which she pays tax in her own right and ACC levies as a worker. She is then employed, just as he is, with all of the rights and force of the Employment Relations Act.

This notion of income splitting certainly does not fit well with the traditional domestic model of which Dunne's fellow MPs approve. It does however raise all kinds of issues.

Who is employing whom? Just what is she being paid for? Unfortunately there is no job description, and no guidelines as to what happens when they separate leaving her with the kids. If income splitting is voluntary, what are the rights of a non-remunerated care-giver to be?

This is not to suggest that there is no merit in the idea. Rather, in light of the urgency to deal with child poverty it seems like a red herring. Generous and indexed Child related tax credits are a much fairer and more certain way to help the families who are struggling the most.

The Child Poverty Action Group seeks immediate action from the government as follows:

*Extend the Child Tax Credit of fifteen dollars per child per week to all low-income families. (Cost: around $250m)

*Adjust Family Support and the income thresholds from which Family Support starts to reduce for the cost of living over the past decade. (Cost: around $250m)

*Place an obligation on the IRD to ensure families access their tax credits.

*Give all children under 18 access to free health and dental care including after hours services and prescriptions.

*Index all family-related payments, including health subsidies.

*Adopt the 60%, after-housing costs, equivalised household disposable income as an official measure of poverty. Monitor poverty on a regular basis to ensure progress is being made to eliminating child poverty.

*Raise the threshold that can be earned by each beneficiary before losing their benefit almost dollar for dollar, from $80 to $130 dollars to compensate for inflation.

Susan St John

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