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Muriel Newman: The Child-Destroying Welfare Trap

The Child-Destroying Welfare Trap
Muriel Newman MP - The Column January 29th

This week, the Column looks at the need to modernise a benefit that is destroying the lives of children.

By overtaxing working New Zealanders, the Labour Government goes into this pre-election year with a $6 billion windfall surplus. As the new Parliamentary term begins, Ministerial rhetoric will undoubtedly focus on the need to redistribute this wealth to “relieve poverty”, rather than on the need to give the surplus back to those who earned it through a programme of comprehensive tax cuts.

The fact that New Zealand does not actually have a clearly defined “poverty” threshold will not hinder the Government spin machine one iota. Nor will adding $5 or $10 to a welfare family’s weekly benefit appreciably improve its circumstances.

It is work, not welfare, that is the only escalator out of poverty, and with New Zealand being in the grip of a skilled and unskilled worker shortage, Labour should be requiring each of the 100,000 beneficiaries who are presently on the dole to take jobs - even if it means relocating.

But the group of New Zealanders who are the most vulnerable to the problems of persistent low incomes - and who would benefit the most from being on that escalator to prosperity - are the 110,696 sole parents and their children whose income source is the domestic purposes benefit.

Research is now unequivocal that children raised by sole parents who are not working fail to do as well in all areas of life than children raised by working parents. Given that one child in four in New Zealand today now lives in a sole parent household dependent on a benefit, it is clear that our welfare system is damaging the lives of hundreds of thousands of children on a daily basis.

While almost everyone knows capable sole parents who are raising their children very successfully, this does not offset the sobering fact that sole parenthood is a major risk factor for children.

Civitas – the British-based Institute for the Study of Civil Society – recently published a study summarising the damaging effects of sole parenthood. ‘Experiments in Living: the Fatherless Society’ found that sole mothers – who make up the majority of sole parent families – are poorer, and more likely to suffer from stress, depression, and other emotional and psychological problems. They generally have more health problems, and are more at risk of experiencing difficulties in interacting with, and adequately supervising, their children.

Sadly, the effects on their children are more profound. These children are more likely to live in poverty and deprivation, have trouble at school and often lack the ability to get on with other children. They are at higher risk of health problems, of suffering from physical, emotional or sexual abuse, and are more likely to run away.

When these children reach their teens, the problems continue to grow. They are more likely to smoke, drink, use drugs, to experience problems with sexual health, and to become teenage parents. They are also more likely to play truant from school, be suspended, leave school as soon as they turn 16, and have adjustment problems.

Such problems continue into young adulthood, when they are less likely to attain qualifications, but more likely to experience unemployment, to have low incomes, become beneficiaries or end up homeless. They are also more likely to suffer from long-term emotional and psychological problems, to develop health problems, or be jailed for committing crime. They are more susceptible to entering into unstable relationships earlier, and more likely to have children outside of marriage or a stable partnership.

These facts should lead concerned New Zealanders to question why we continue to condone a welfare system that not only incentivises - but actively encourages - sole parenthood when we know it significantly disadvantaged children.

Social welfare should be a safety net offering a hand up to work, opportunity and a better future. But with Labour having removed work testing for sole parents, the dpb has effectively become a benefit for life, locking mothers and children into harmful long-term lifestyles.

With the present abundance of available jobs, I believe that it is now time to take a stand to modernise sole parent benefits. We should be looking at replacing the damaging stand-alone dpb with an unemployment benefit for sole parents specially designed to support those with school-age children into work and independence from the State.

This was the essence of former US President Bill Clinton’s federal welfare changes in 1996. Faced with the same overwhelming evidence that sole parenthood damages children, he abolished the US equivalent of the dpb. The results speak for themselves: the poverty rate of children living with single mothers is at the lowest point in US history. Single mothers’ employment rates have dramatically risen – with the greatest benefits being experienced by the most disadvantaged mothers. The explosive growth in out-of-wedlock childbearing has virtually ground to a halt and the proportion of children now living in married families has significantly increased.

It is time for us to send a message to the Labour Government that New Zealanders want to live in a country where every child has a chance to succeed. The only way forward is to modernise a benefit that has now been shown to be responsible for destroying those chances.

Please let me know whether you too believe the time is now right to address the disadvantage to children caused by our welfare system … and please feel free to ask other interested people to send me their responses as well!

“Neighbours from Hell” Column Update:

Thanks to those who responded to my recent ‘Neighbours from Hell’ column. I have been so appalled by some of your stories that I have decided to publish a selection on the ACT website.

The Ministry of Housing’s Tenancy Services have published a guide for landlords and tenants in which it clearly states that tenants must not “Interfere with the peace, comfort or privacy of other tenants or neighbours, or permit anyone else at the house or flat to interfere with tenants’ or neighbours’ peace, comfort or privacy.” Clearly tenants who destroy their neighbours’ right to the quiet enjoyment of their own home are in breach of their Tenancy Agreement and are breaking the law.

I am working on a proactive response to this situation, but would ask those with a story to tell – that could be published on our website – to contact me.

To make a submission or read about the experiences of others click here.

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