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"What's the DPB got to do with me?"

Mitchell Speech to Eastbourne Rotary

"What's the DPB got to do with me?"

Lindsay Mitchell

I am delighted to be invited to speak to you tonight. Two and a half years ago, I made a conscious decision to speak out about welfare and in particular, the domestic purposes benefit. Since then my role has evolved into that of a writer and researcher and I have been uncomfortably aware that if one is going to speak out then one should actually "Speak" so this is a timely opportunity which I thank you for. I hope also that there will be time for your questions after I have spoken.

There may be those amongst you who are wondering, "What has the DPB got to do with me?" Tonight, I want to show you that it has everything to do with you and your family.

For some men the first knowledge they have that they have fathered a child comes when the IRD takes the first child support payment from their pay packet. And so begins 19 years of payments that are not assessed on the child's needs or the mothers income or even her new partner's income. They are assessed on the father's ability to pay. Once on an average or better income, he can expect to pay around a quarter of his take home pay in child support.

Common reaction is, "and why shouldn't he face up to his financial responsibilities." I agree; it's not the taxpayer's job to pay for the child he has fathered. But we need to back up and look at what has happened here, bearing in mind, that this could happen to someone in your family, your teenage son for instance, if you have one. Today, if a girl finds herself pregnant she is far more likely to decide to proceed with the pregnancy and keep the child because the DPB will finance this decision indefinitely. In 1971, two years before the DPB was passed into law, 83 percent of the children adopted (2,700) were born out of wedlock. By 2002, total adoptions from within and overseas had fallen to a mere 600.

I don't want to get into a debate about the merits or otherwise of adoption but clearly an acceptance now abounds that it is okay for the stranger, the taxpayer, to take financial responsibility for a child's upbringing but it is less than ideal to allow a couple with the means and desire to take that same responsibility.

Lets go back to the pregnant girl. Allow me to put your teenage son (or indeed my own in a few years) into the shoes of the one who is being held liable. After the point of conception, if she doesn't grant it, he will have absolutely no say in whether the birth proceeds. Indeed if she decided not to proceed and this was against his wishes he would still have no legal right to stop her having an abortion. She is making a decision that could affect his life (and yours) for years to come and he is powerless. Assuming she doesn't have the means to raise a child single-handedly, which is usually the case, her decision hinges on the availability of the DPB.

What if he decides to challenge paternity? I wish I could tell you something concrete about this. My efforts to ascertain IRD guidelines in respect of the Child Support Act have revealed that only DNA testing which has the written consent of the child's legal guardian (the mother) can be accepted. This raises a spectre of "guilty until proven innocent" without the opportunity to prove innocence. Cases do proceed to the Family Court but solicitor and DNA test costs, if an order can be obtained, invariably fall to the male. I know of a young man who paid $5,000 for DNA testing and his solicitor's bill, albeit this was in the early nineties.

Assuming he is the father, he will have to start paying child support from the birth onwards. As mentioned, the IRD assesses his income. As a student, unemployed or on a low income, the minimum weekly payment is $13. (By the way, many of those who have fathered children being brought up on the DPB make only the minimum payment, which is why a mere 10% of the total DPB bill is recovered from liable parents.) If at the time of conception the couple were neither living together nor married, and she decides he is irrelevant beyond being financially responsible, he will have no effective guardianship rights - neither will the paternal grandparents have contact rights. Even if access is applied for and granted through the Family Court, in practice, if the mother denies it the order will not be enforced.

If she decides he is even worse than irrelevant, she might decide not to name him at all on the birth certificate. This might be the best outcome for him but it's the worst for the taxpayer. Over 16,000 women on the DPB haven't named the father of their child. This means she forgoes $22 a week but the taxpayer picks up the total tab for her and her child's upkeep for however long she decides to stay on a benefit. (The current average total time spent on the DPB is nearing seven years.)

Alternatively, if she's wily, she could suggest to your son that they come to a private arrangement whereby she doesn't name him and he pays an agreed sum to her directly. She keeps him out of the IRD system but collects the benefit and his payment. He pays less than he would if named. They are both winners. The rorts are numerous. But this is what the DPB system has evolved into - a system of perverse incentives and widespread exploitation.

So, what happened before the 1973? Families rightly took far more responsibility for the upbringing of an ex-nuptial child. And because they took this responsibility seriously, the pressure not to even get pregnant was greater. Of course, girls did, but we had far more shot gun marriages and far more adoptions. Again, I'm not waving a banner of support for these practices but when you look at the sometimes dire social consequences of children being raised in fatherless welfare dependent homes you have to wonder if we didn't exchange one ill for another far worse.

When I launched my petition calling for a Parliamentary review of the DPB the biggest response was from grandparents, many of who were too young to be grandparents. Some despair of a system that is seducing their daughters into sole motherhood as a career or lifestyle choice. They feel the government is intruding into family life. It is bringing out the worst motivations in people. Some are literally left holding the results of the casual baby making that typifies a generous benefit system. Because they could see how poorly their own children were doing as parents, often because of gambling, alcohol and drug problems, they had assumed fulltime care-giving for their grandchildren. You can imagine how difficult and heartbreaking this circumstance would be. But to add insult to injury their own children will then fight them for the custody of the grandchildren because they are needed to secure benefits. Commonly the parent gets legal aid to challenge for custody while the grandparents have to finance their own court costs. It's a nightmare. A group has formed called "Grandparents Raising Grandchildren" and although there are no official statistics, they put their numbers in the thousands. This is a further phenomena produced by the DPB culture.

What else has the DPB got to do with you? If you are an employer, especially of unskilled workers, you will know that competing with benefits is difficult. Let me quote from a letter published in the New Zealand Herald on Jan 31 this year; "As one who has interviewed more than 250 applicants for process workers in South Auckland over the past year - most of them on some type of benefit - I can endorse Bosko Marojevic's statement that working mothers earn less than mothers on the DPB. Although each case is different, it is fairly common to find people with several children and accommodation supplements whose income on the DPB is considerably more than the 40 hours at $12.50 an hour gross that the company I represent is offering. It makes a hard decision for some women to accept a job offer for less money, pay tax, find and pay for good childcare and give up free time. Fortunately some are prepared to manage on less to break the welfare trap successive governments have made for them."

One in 5 firms currently can't get the unskilled labour they need. They are trapped in a vicious cycle of paying high tax to fund high welfare spending and consequently not being able to offer enough to compete with those benefits.

Crime. Crime can affect anybody at any time and we all know that violent crime has risen dramatically. The links between welfare and crime are demonstrable. 73% of women inmates in New Zealand jails were on benefits before they arrived in prison. Young men growing up without fathers are far more susceptible to negative male influence and are drawn into the gang culture. A survey conducted in Christchurch a couple of years ago showed that 65% of young offenders came from fatherless homes.

In a speech given at a Parliamentary breakfast earlier this month, Principal Youth Court Judge, Andrew Becroft, identified the main characteristics of the young offenders who appear before him.

I quote; "The second characteristic (the first was that 85% are male) is that many have no adult male role model or a good adult role model and come from disadvantaged, even dysfunctional families. 14,15 and 16 year-old boys seek out role models like "heat seeking missiles." Its either the leader of the Mongrel Mob or it's a sports coach or its dad. But an overwhelming majority of young boys who I see in the Youth Court have lost contact with their father. That message is often received by audiences in various ways. I'm not making a judgment about people who separate because usually separated dads have a wonderful input into the lives of their children. Neither am I saying that all solo mum's breed criminals, because it's a lot to do with parenting styles and involving adult male role models in the lives of their boys. But what I am saying is that I'm dealing in the Youth Court, as are the 42 Youth Court Judges around the country, with boys for whom their dad is simply not there, never has been, gone, vanished and disappeared. When you ask them about their dads as I sometimes do, the tears will stream down from their eyes or their anger will rise up. It's an awfully common characteristic."

It was a crime that set me off on this campaign. Do you remember Lillybing? When that terrible story was unfolding my little girl was almost exactly the same age - 21 months. I was acutely aware of the vulnerability and the helplessness of a child so young. How can people maltreat children in such horrendous ways? Why do they even have them? I couldn't answer these questions.

The story unfolded. Rachelle Namana, who was convicted for the manslaughter of the baby, was on the DPB (despite living with the father of her own children) and she was defrauding WINZ of a further benefit a cousin who had gone to Australia was still claiming. You and I were paying for her and her horrible lifestyle. Are we somehow responsible? I don't like to think so but if we just keep our heads in the sand then, in a way, we are.

Even if people would rather avert their minds from the kind of underclass that welfare has bred, and some days I think it might be the saner attitude, do they really want government spending their money on such questionable social policies? Single parents on benefits are costing around $2.6 billion when all the peripheral allowances are taken account of. For every $100 you pay in tax, around $22 goes on working-age benefits. Ironically, only $4 goes into law and order. Shouldn't the two figures be transposed?

In 1973, National MP Lance Adam-Schneider put forward a bill to introduce a benefit for solo parents and unsupported women. The overriding aim of this bill was to 'strengthen families'. Norm King, the then Social Welfare Minister asked Lance Adam-Schneider how much the proposed new benefit would cost the country. The answer was $250,000 a year. Here we are, thirty years on and four zeros later, and families have not been strengthened. They have been decimated. One in four children are now growing up in one-parent families reliant on the DPB.

I hope by now you are convinced that the DPB, which makes up the biggest slice of working age welfare, has implications for everybody. What then can we do about it?

Obviously some benefits are necessary and legitimate but I believe they are all being abused to some degree. What we don't know is the extent of that abuse or misuse. If we go back to 1970, only 30,000 working age people were on benefits. There are now nearly 400,000. The population hasn't even doubled over the same period. If we could sort the wheat from the chaff, we may find that we are dealing with a fairly small number.

That achieved, (I'll expand on how in a moment), my ideal is that the state would not be involved in the provision of welfare, because it is worse than ineffective. As an aside, I spoke recently to Kathy Loveday who works for the Wellington City Mission. I contacted her after hearing her on the news describing the welfare state as a monster, an unorthodox view from one who works with beneficiaries. We agreed that private charities are far more effective at helping the poor than governments are. Unfortunately, support for such charities has dwindled as people pay more and more tax to fund government provided welfare.

Returning to why the state is so ineffective. Because public welfare is funded from the public purse, welfare has become a huge industry with many vested interests. The public purse is permanently open and never empty. Typically, accountability is not a priority. Reducing welfare dependency may be a stated goal but nobody seriously wants to work themselves out of a job. Governments must practice non-discriminatory policies and treat everybody the same despite everybody's circumstances being different. WINZ staff encourage clients to view benefits as entitlements.

Interestingly, there have been recent complaints from advocacy groups that people were not accessing one such entitlement, the special benefit, which is a top up when the regular benefit won't stretch far enough. It transpired that the offices where this benefit was not being accessed were those where Maori staff were taking a tough line with Maori beneficiaries. This might have been the right approach and certainly, Maori want to deal with their own people on their own terms BUT it was not allowed. It was viewed as a form of discrimination.

However, in a politically correct irony, discrimination does exist in the welfare system. Same sex couples are not treated the same way as heterosexual couples. Two lesbians can live together and draw the DPB and a working income. As the law stands, WINZ can't do anything about this because of the 1964 Social Security ACT, which does not recognise same sex couples.

A father e-mailed this story. His wife had left him and taken their two children. She went to live with her new female partner and went on the DPB. The new partner was a teacher aide. Now the ex-wife is living in a two-income household while the dispossessed Dad is paying substantial child support to her and paying for his children for the time that they are with him. And because even the highest child support payment does not reach the level of the DPB once again the taxpayer is putting money into a comfortable two income household and we should not forget that some taxpayers are themselves struggling in low single- income households.

There can be no justification for this sort of misuse of other people's money. Yet, we have been taught to 'buy into' a philanthropic philosophy, which can only operate, by government forcibly transferring money from one sector to another.

Consequently, most take taxation for granted, to the relief of government. But what if the constituent starts to question welfare policies?

You will remember what happened to John Tamihere when he spoke out. Why was he shut down so swiftly? Because the government will not entertain one iota of scepticism about the welfare state and this is in part because their voters form the 400,000 working age beneficiary group.

So, they make a show of 'reforming' welfare and may even believe that their new initiatives are going to work. Mr Maharey talks about "Getting alongside beneficiaries," "Finding out what they want to do with their lives," and "Helping them to prepare for work or training as and when family responsibilities allow." (My husband made the comment when he heard this statement, "My family responsibilities don't ALLOW me to go to work, - they demand it.)

'Reform' looks like this. In March, changes were made to the DPB rules. Previously those on the DPB were expected to be available for part-time work when their youngest child turned 6 and fulltime when their youngest child turned 14. This was determined to be draconian and punitive so worktesting was scrapped, as was the 13-week stand down period. Now someone can go from a job straight onto the benefit and they can stay on it until their youngest child is 18. On April 1, benefit rates were increased again. All WINZ require now is that DPB beneficiaries have a goal-setting personal development plan and they must attend a yearly interview to show that they are working towards achieving these goals.

Well I apologise to anybody here who thinks these measures are going to reduce dependency because I can't express how cynical I am about their chances.

This isn't the path successful welfare-reforming countries have trodden. Canada and the USA have slashed their welfare rolls. I'll use Ontario as an example. In 1997, they had 202,000 single parents on benefits. Three months ago, they had 74,000. (We have 116,000 by the way.) What is their population? 12 million.

In Wisconsin, an American state similar to New Zealand in its population and agricultural profile, families on welfare have dropped from 96,000 in 1990 to around 5,000 today. Since President Clinton abolished their DPB equivalent (AFDC, Assistance for Families with Dependent Children) in 1996, and replaced it with TANF, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families there has been a national drop in welfare numbers of 60%.

There are many successful models available, especially from Canada and the US because each state or province did their own thing and results could be compared for effectiveness. Using measures like time- limiting, cuts to benefit rates, mandatory work and training programmes and just applying a basic philosophy as Wisconsin did which was "Everybody is capable of doing something," has been amazingly successful.

I am optimistic we can reverse our statistics similarly. What I am less optimistic about is that the public-will to back a government prepared to tackle the issue head-on, can be generated - but I am doing my bit! Let me leave you with some disturbing facts.

We are not currently replacing our population but fertility rates are the highest in Northland and the East Coast areas. This is where most of the babies, per head of population, are being born. These regions are already economically deprived and unemployment is high.

One in six school leavers are going not into work or training. Children learn by example.

We have a small workforce of 1.8 million. This workforce has to support their own dependents, 400,000 working age beneficiaries and their children and 450,000 super annuitants and, in some cases, their grandchildren. This is not a criticism of pensioners but when you look at the facts it's a hell of an ask of any workforce. This all signals deeply troubled waters ahead for our children and for us.

Which is why I write and write and write, letters and articles to MPs, to newspapers, to websites, to community organisations, churches. This is why I ring talkback, organise meetings and clamour on to anybody who will listen. My latest concept is to go on campus and distribute a message to young men. A copy of the proposed message is attached to my speech, if you want to pick up a copy before you go.

I hope you will take it home and let others read about an issue that will define our future. Thank YOU for listening.

For further information please visit http://www.liberalvalues.org.nz or e-mail mailto:dandl.mitchell@clear.net.nz

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