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Welfare; Passing The Point Of No Return

Welfare; Passing The Point Of No Return

Lindsay Mitchell

A professor of social policy from the University of Bath was recently good enough to send me a chapter from a soon-to-be published book about UK welfare which deals specifically with the New Deal for Lone Parents. Amongst other things, it analyses societal attitudes to sole parenting, and in particular, at-home parenting over the past thirty years and describes how the UK differs from the US. The UK still generally embraces at-home parenting while the US is comfortable with working parents. This explains in part why the latter has been far more successful in getting the public to approve and vote for decisive policies aimed at getting single parents off benefits and into jobs.

How would New Zealand compare? When I recently addressed a Rotary group about the problems of fatherless children brought up on welfare the only dissension came from those who, despite the obvious downside to the DPB, felt we should continue to pay single parents to stay home. Maybe majority thinking would still reflect UK opinion, although not necessarily for the same reasons. At-home parenting is pushed not only by the conservatives but the radical feminists. Yes, radical feminists are happy to see women in the home. Single mums that is, heterosexual or lesbian, who should be 'free' to bring up their children independent of a man.

Labour's recent social policy changes - removing work-testing from the domestic purposes benefit for example- were influenced by these two streams of thought, as well as by pressure from beneficiary advocate groups.

But there is a further influence not mirrored in any other society; that of Maori and Pacific attitudes to child rearing and family structures. Teenage birth rates are much higher amongst these groups. For under 18 year-old Maori, the rate per thousand is 22.7 compared to 4.9 for non-Maori. Maori and Pacific women have their children at a younger age. Attitudes towards contraception, especially male, differ to non- Maori and female fertility, particularly amongst Pacific Islanders, is still highly valued.

All of these factors lead to Maori and Pacific women being disproportionately represented in single parent benefit receipt and these percentages are rising. Forty percent of those on the DPB are Maori but Maori make up only 15 percent of the population. Maori have more children. Fertility rates are highest in the Gisborne and Northland regions, areas of high Maori population and high benefit dependency.

This Labour government is characterised by its accommodating approach to Maori. The voting block is reasonably reliable and growing faster than any other. This throws up another major obstacle to the rigorous and successful welfare reform along the lines of the US.

It might be argued that in the States, afro-American and Hispanic groups echo the dependency disproportionality of Maori and Pacific people, and this hasn't hampered reform. However, the US doesn't have a Treaty of Waitangi; it doesn't have the governmental disdain for the taxpayer and it traditionally appreciates personal responsibility and individual freedom through its constitution. In New Zealand, we are being pulled in a far more collective direction by the welfare state and a browning population.

One of the premises of the welfare state is that children whose parents lack the means to raise them are everybody's responsibility (the side affect of which is to create a steady stream of second and third generation new entrants into the benefit system.) We need to be quite clear about whether we accept this idea or not. Because if we fail to do so now, open-ended welfare as an entitlement will very soon be beyond debate. We will be left simply trying to get used to living with the social and economic costs. We will pass the point of no return.

Lindsay Mitchell is petitioning for a Parliamentary review of the DPB

For more information go to www.liberalvalues.org.nz

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