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Muriel Newman: Entrenching The DPB

Weekly Column by Dr Muriel Newman

This week our Social Services Select Committee has begun hearing submissions on the Social Security (Working Towards Employment) Amendment Bill 2001. With 27 per cent of New Zealand families already headed by a sole parent, working on this Bill is a very depressing experience, since it will be responsible for locking more and more mothers and children into the cycle of benefit dependency and poverty

Essentially, the Bill removes the work testing of sole parents on the Domestic Purposes Benefit. In other words, it removes the basic assumption that sole parents should be encouraged to move into the workforce. In fact the Bill is explicit in that it does not require sole parents receiving the DPB to accept any offer of employment at all.

It also removes the mandatory 13-week stand-down period if a sole parent who is working decides to quit her job to stay at home and look after her children. Further, it removes the restrictions on overseas travel, enabling a sole parent to go out of the country for up to four weeks and still get paid.

Most of those making submissions on the Bill are beneficiary advocates. This government has actively sought their support, spending well over $30,000 on travel, hospitality and accommodation for beneficiary union groups during the past two years. These unions, which have established an influential working partnership with the government, have produced a list of over 100 demands. The removal of work testing of beneficiaries on the DPB was one of their key demands.

The Domestic Purposes Benefit has always been controversial. Introduced in the early 1970s to support women and their children to move out of violent relationships, it has effectively been responsible for seriously undermining the New Zealand family unit. It has resulted in generations of sole parents being locked into dependency, their children deprived of the support of their fathers.

Essentially the DPB pays single parents to support their children in family situations, which, according to widespread research, not only puts them in the poverty trap but also places them at an increased risk of abuse, educational failure, crime and other negative outcomes in life. Teenage mothers and their children have been shown to be the most vulnerable, with almost 70 per cent of those women who first received the DPB as a teenager still being on a benefit. Many have had more children, raising them on their own without proper support from the fathers.

That is not to say that many sole parents do not do a great job in raising their children. It's just that on the balance of probability, two committed parents are better than one and children raised on welfare fail to do as well as those raised by parents who work.

When the DPB was originally introduced, 17,000 women were expected to qualify for it. By 1997, numbers on the DPB had risen to 112,000 - with projections showing that the numbers would increase to 124,000 by the year 2001.

However, in the late 1990s, the National-led Government introduced the work testing of sole parents in order to halt this inexorable rise. Work testing required sole parents with a child under six years old to attend an annual meeting with their case manager to plan their future. Those with children over six but under 14 were required to search for part-time work, and those with children over 14 were expected to look for full-time work.

As a result, instead of climbing, the numbers on the DPB dropped to 108,000.

Papers obtained under the Official Information Act show that Treasury has opposed this work test abolition Bill, stating that "the policy changes are untested, and there is no robust evidence to support the claimed beneficial outcomes". They were alarmed about the "risk of reversing the employment outcomes for sole parents", and very concerned that "the full fiscal implications of the reforms are not disclosed".

This Labour-led government regularly introduces major policy changes and decisions without really knowing what the final cost to the taxpayer will be. It's as if they place more importance on winning votes than on spending taxpayer's money carefully. As a result of the government's view that sole parents on the DPB should not have to move into work, DPB numbers are expected to rise by 1,000 a year, significantly increasing the $1.5 billion dollar burden on New Zealand taxpayers.

However, the real damage will be to children. When governments pay families to split apart, they will split apart. Giving mothers an income for an unlimited time, just as long as she doesn't work, doesn't marry and doesn't let the father of the children see his kids for more than forty percent of the time, will produce more damaged children.

This government clearly refuses to recognise that families do matter, and that marriage is still the best institution ever invented to raise children. It should be marriage and the family that is being incentivised, not sole parenthood.

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