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Let's Turn It Around

Tuesday 22nd Jun 1999

Muriel Newman

Article -- Social Welfare

It is apparent that most New Zealanders are now feeling overwhelmed by the depth and breadth of the social problems we face - crime, abuse, violence, teenage pregnancy, suicide, drug and alcohol addictions. They feel that these are the inevitable result of modern life, and that there are no solutions.

That is wrong. New Zealand is a family orientated society. Our voluntary participation rates are high by world standards. This country was built on the strength of our families and communities.

Yet our present levels of family break-up, the precursor of many of the negative social outcomes we now face, are greater than the OECD, Australia, and virtually all of the rest of the world.

Within a generation, family breakdown has gone through the roof. By altering the incentives that underpin our social policy framework New Zealand has moved to being a world leader in the proportion of sole parent families, and children growing up in æbenefit led householdsÆ.

The good news is, however, that as other countries have shown, we can easily turn it around. I read in the media that some people appear to be arguing that our world record level of family break down is nothing to worry about. What I think they are really trying to say is that there are many sole parents doing a great job, who deserve our admiration. I could not agree more. However, their outstanding efforts should not disguise the facts that increasing numbers of New Zealand children (the Minister of Social Welfare puts the number at 90,000) are now at risk of abuse on a daily basis.

A 1998 Ministry of Health report entitled ôOur ChildrenÆs Healthö, listed as the key risk factors impacting on the health and safety of children, being raised in a sole parent family, and having a young mother who had not finished her education. In a British study, ôBroken Homes and Battered Childrenö, Robert Wheelan shows that the safest place in which to raise a child is the natural married family. As families break down, not only does the risk of child abuse increase, but as Pat Fagan of the Heritage Foundation in ôThe Real Root Causes of Violent Crimeö points out, so too does the increase in violent crime. He has estimated that for every 10% increase in out of wedlock births, there is a 17% increase in violent crime. This is especially worrying given New ZealandÆs record illegitimacy rate - 42% for the population as a whole and 78% for Maori.

New Zealand is a family orientated society, and we are quite capable of turning this situation around by addressing the incentives in government social policy. I can think of no issue that is more urgent than this.

Raising kids these days is not easy. For many children, their path through to adulthood is no longer a straight line, but a rough slalom course through very adult problems. Those children raised with clear boundaries, strong values and a well-developed sense of personal responsibility, have a far better chance of keeping on the straight and narrow, than children who donÆt.

Dr Muriel Newman, MP for ACT New Zealand, writes a weekly opinion piece on topical issues for a number of community newspapers. You are welcome to forward this column to anyone you think may be interested.

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