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Relationships to strengthen families and whanau

Hon Steve Maharey
4 December 2003 Speech Notes

Building strong relationships to strengthen families and whanau

Comments at the Strengthening Family Relationships conference. Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington.


Thank you for inviting me to present my thoughts on strengthening family relationships and the role this current government is playing in building strong families in New Zealand.

The family is society’s most fundamental building block. At its core, the family has the prime responsibility for raising children. It does so primarily through providing care and nurturing, transferring culture and values, and shaping individual identity.

The family also plays a critical role in supporting the emotional, social and economic needs of its other members, including partners, aged parents, or other kin. These factors are often overlooked in public debate, but will become increasingly important in an ageing society.

Finally, the family is the ‘institution’ that interacts with the state, the community and the market.

Probably the most critical issue for the policy maker in the 21st century is the realisation that families come in many forms, and provide many and varied roles.

Above all else relationships are at the core of today’s family. What we know is that the quality of relationships – between couples, and between parents and children – makes a big difference to how individuals cope with change and with personal and family crisis.

It is this that you have come here to discuss today. How to help parents and children build strong family relationships so that they have successful outcomes, even if the form of the family changes. This is a big challenge. It is not something the government can – or should - do on its own. Individuals, agencies, advocates, communities and government all have a role to play. How to help families without intruding on their privacy is part of the challenge.

New Zealand families

What do we know about New Zealand families today?

The nuclear family of the 1950s – with a father in full-time work, supporting a wife and children – is no longer the dominant model. In 61% of two-parent families, both parents are employed. In about half of these families, both parents are employed full-time.

One-parent families have increased from 10 percent of families in 1976 to 29 percent in 2001. Relationship breakdown has replaced widowhood as the main cause of sole parenthood. Often the debate about family form ignores entirely the extent of diversity that exists within the so-called “single parent family”.

This includes the factors that led to this family form, the age and circumstances of the children within these families, the skills and background of the single parent, and the nature and strength of the relationship between parents who may be jointly involved in bringing up their children following the breakdown of their own relationship.

A significant oversight in this debate is also the extent to which single parent families are supported by a wider extended family, either through co-residence or through strong economic and social support.

The nuclear family is in fact a relatively recent model and mainly reflects the experience of Pakeha New Zealanders. However, within these nuclear families there have always been obligations and support relationships that extend over generations and to family members outside the immediate household. These responsibilities will become increasingly important in an ageing population. In the coming decade the fastest growing family form will be that of a couple family without resident children.

Among Maori and Pacific peoples, sizeable minorities still live in extended families, with several family members sharing childrearing and economic roles. In some new migrant families, the male breadwinner model is still the norm. There can be intergenerational differences between overseas-born and New Zealand-born family members in their expectations of family roles and obligations.

Couples are marrying later, less often, and for shorter periods. From 1971 to 2002, the median age of marriage rose from 21 to 28 years for women, and from 23 to 29 years for men. Over the same period, the divorce rate more than doubled, from 5.1 divorces per 1,000 existing marriages to 12.9 per 1,000. Thirty percent of couples married in 1977 had divorced within 25 years, compared to 26 percent of those married in 1967. Cohabiting parents made up 3 percent of couples with children in 1981, rising to 11 percent in 2001.

Marriages involving divorced people give some indication of the growth of reconstituted families. In 2001, 37 percent of marriages involved at least one previously married person, up from 16 percent in 1971.

Today’s new mothers are having fewer children than their mothers’ generation and at an older age. Average family size has fallen from 2.5 children in 1966 to 1.9 in 2001. The average number of children born has dropped from a peak of 4.2 births per woman in 1962 to 1.9 in 2002. The median age for a woman giving birth is now 30 years, compared to 25 years in the early 1970s. However, Maori mothers are younger on average, with a median age of 26 years for those giving birth in 2001.

These trends are reflected in the older age of parents living with dependent children. From 1986 to 2001, the median age of mothers of dependent children rose from 35 to 38 years; for fathers, the median age rose from 38 to 40 years.

Diversity and change in families is likely to continue, reflecting in part the increasing diversity of the New Zealand population. An increasing proportion of children are spending time in more than one household, or in blended families, as a result of their parents’ separation. These changing relationships often place considerable demands on parents and children.

Expectations of fathers are also changing, with more emphasis on their relationship with children as opposed to their role as economic providers. Supporting fathers to maintain ongoing contact with their children following separation is obviously a major challenge.

None of the family structures I have described here are necessarily better or worse than each other.

The challenge is to support the varying family configurations so that they can all operate effectively and successfully, to give parents the skills to cope with relationship changes and thereby enable children to flourish.

Our programme of reform and support for New Zealand’s family is taking place on many fronts. It includes our work to modernise the framework for resolving ongoing care arrangements for children within families, especially when the relationship between the parents breaks down, through the Care of Children Bill that is presently before the Select Committee. It includes programmes of parental support and intervention with families who need greater levels of assistance, and it includes our reform of the welfare system to make families economically sustainable.

It also includes our work to better support the balance between working life and family life. This involves promoting workplaces and work practices that are family friendly, and supporting to families in their care giving responsibilities.

Building strong families: benefit and childcare reforms

One area of sharp difference among New Zealand’s families is in their economic standards of living. Clearly, an adequate standard of living is essential for healthy families and healthy children. The research evidence is clear – children living for extended periods in families at the low end of income distribution experience a double disadvantage. Hard times in the present, and a higher risk of poorer outcomes in the years ahead.

Living in low-income households increases risks of poor outcomes for all children, but especially for those in lone parent households. Many of you will be familiar with the landmark research of leading US academic Sasa McLanahan and Gary Sandefur on the effect of income on disparities in outcomes for children from single parent and two-parent families.

Their conclusion was that:

“Low income or income loss is the single most important factor in accounting for the lower achievement of children in single-mother families. It accounts for half of the difference in educational achievement, weak labour force attachment, and early childbearing.”

From break-through work on living standards undertaken by the Ministry of Social Development’s Centre for Social Research and Evaluation, we know that almost a third – 29 percent – of New Zealand children live in restricted economic circumstances.

As a living standard measure this covers a range or continuum of circumstances that could best be described as relative hardship.

Individual families will differ in the degree of relative hardship and in what changes and accommodations they have to make in response. Often this will involve adults going without so their children don’t have to.

However, what is clear is that these families are much less likely to have access to comfort or luxury items like personal computers or holidays and will have to economise to varying degrees on basic items like clothes, shoes and utilities – in the very toughest circumstances core essentials like doctors visits or glasses start to be postponed or even gone without.

For children, this economising is likely to impact on buying school books, missing school outings and cultural and sports activities.

These factors can all adversely affect a child’s development, and education. And poor health, education, and social outcomes in the present lay the foundation for poor outcomes in the future.

Restricted economic circumstances are often a direct result of the phenomenon of ‘work poor’ families – families with no parent in paid employment. Around a third of Maori and Pacific children, 25% of Asian children, and 15% of European children live in families without a parent in paid work.

Recent reductions in the levels of unemployment and improved participation in employment are beginning to change this situation. Over the past five years the numbers of couple families with children reliant on a benefit as their main source of income has fallen by 36%.

Hardship, however, extends to some low income working families too – it’s not just the work poor households that are at risk, but also the working poor.

Making work pay for families

This government is committed to helping both the work poor and the working poor. Central to this, we want to “make work pay” for families.

This year we introduced a package of benefit reforms targeted at helping parents, especially sole parents into sustainable employment.

These reforms take account of the circumstances and responsibilities of parents, particularly single parents. We removed the work test for single parent families, and introduced a Personal Development Employment and Planning process.

We lowered the caseloads of Work and Income case managers, enabling them to provide enhanced case management to their clients. Enhanced case management is a holistic and comprehensive approach to client assessment and support. It’s a radical step away from simply paying out benefits to clients.

This process aims at better supporting parents in their roles as both economic providers and in the care, nurturing and development of their children. It enables parents to identify their goals and the actions required to achieve them. The focus is on finding long-term employment solutions, rather than less-than-adequate quick fixes.

Early results from this change are promising. Of the 80% of parents who have developed a personal development plan, a third have committed themselves to education and training. This rises to close to 40% for those with children between 1 and 7 years of age.

Quality, affordable childcare is essential to a parent entering and remaining in employment. The 1998 New Zealand Childcare Survey confirmed that childcare problems affected the ability of one in seven parents to work.

In this year’s Budget, the Government increased the maximum number of hours of subsidised children for low-income families, from 37 to 50 hours per week. Over the next four years, we’re investing $24.5 million in subsidised childcare hours for low-income working parents.

In addition to these and other initiatives, planning is underway for further benefit reform that we hope will assist low to middle income families with dependent children. We have to do more to assist these families to deliver a decent standard of living for their families and give their children real opportunity and security. We expect to make announcements on this in the 2004 budget.

Building strong families: support, advocacy, research

Economic independence and an adequate standard of living are critical to healthy families. But clearly, building a strong and healthy family is not a matter of just income alone.

The Government’s Parent and Child Support Development Programme includes a range of initiatives that provide support, information, knowledge, and skills training to parents.

The Government’s Strengthening Families strategy is a major platform for pulling together the resources across government agencies and community providers to address the needs of particularly vulnerable families. The strategy places strong emphasis on effective relationships, requiring community and government agencies working together with high-risk families.

The Government given the Ministry of Social Development overall responsibility for leadership and coordination of family services. This is a new function for the Ministry. It is establishing a national family Services unit in Wellington, and four regional offices in Auckland, Rotorua, Wellington and Christchurch.

The service will be supported by a national advisory body, with representatives from government and non-government agencies, iwi/Maori and Pacific peoples. The advisory body will help develop family support strategies and oversee their implementation.

We are also currently considering how we might enhance programme initiatives such as Family Start and Social Workers in Schools. These programmes work with children and families who are at greatest risk of poor life outcomes. Findings to date from evaluations of both initiatives indicate that these programmes are positively received by the families who they have worked with.

The Families Commission comes into being next year. The lynch pin in building support for families across the government sector, the Commission’s main focus will be on advocacy and research.

The Commission will build public awareness and create a better understanding of family issues and what works well for families. Its strong research function will ensure that everything it does is based on sound evidence—on what we know works well.

All our work for New Zealand families must draw on evidence-based policy and practice. Real, concrete evidence about what happens beyond the front door in our family homes, and what programmes and interventions are effective in building strong resilient families.

Work underway in the Department of Labour and in the Ministry of Social Development is seeking to understand the issues parents face in balancing their work and home lives, and in particular how these issues affect outcomes for children. Results from some of this work are expected early next year.

We have also asked the OECD, through its programme of international comparisons, to work with us to identify what we might need to do to better support families in the interface between work and family life. I am aware of many of the areas that the OECD will probably highlight, including promoting family-friendly work places and practices, and providing quality childcare and parental leave.

As a government we have begun to make major inroads on this front. In our first term we secured paid parental leave for working parents. Our commitment to extend holiday leave provisions from 3 to 4 weeks acknowledges that family life is changing. Increased participation in work by parents needs to be supported through the creation of opportunities for families to have time together.

Building strong families: addressing family violence and children’s safety

New Zealand’s record in ensuring safe supportive family contexts continues to be shaken and challenged. We must acknowledge these problems and take the action to address them.

Te Rito New Zealand Family Violence Prevention Strategy was launched in March 2002.

At Te Rito’s core is a vision of a New Zealand where families and whanau are living free from violence. A collaborative strategy between government and non-government agencies, Te Rito reinforces the Government’s commitment to a number of international conventions related to preventing violence in families and whanau.

A new initiative to improve access to family violence information is the Family Violence Clearing House. We expect that the Clearing House will be an essential resource to guide best practice for government agencies working to reduce family violence in New Zealand.

In response to the Baseline Review of the Department of Child, Youth and Family Services, we’ve strengthened the Department’s focus on keeping children safe and secure, and preventing youth offending.

Aotearoa solutions

The New Zealand family of the future will be a complex institution requiring a multitude of support mechanisms.

We’re certainly making progress. But this is an area that represents considerable challenge.

I know that the addresses by Professors Amato, Bradbury and Russell - and today’s three panel discussions - will deepen our insight to the critical dimensions of family relationships.

While indeed we do have much to learn from the international experience, to me it is vital that we develop solutions that meet the particular needs of our people.

Who better than ourselves can genuinely understand our own needs? Who better than ourselves can build the support for the New Zealand family, in its many forms, to emerge intact and functioning in the decades to come?

I’m sure the high calibre of today’s speakers and discussion panel members will provide a springboard for new perspectives and approaches that will help forge uniquely New Zealand solutions for uniquely New Zealand challenges.


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