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The Size and Nature of the Welfare Problem

The Size and Nature of the Welfare Problem

By Lindsay Mitchell

According to population estimates there are approximately 546,000 New Zealand families with dependent children. Around one in five is dependent on welfare. A legitimate question is, how many of those welfare families have children at risk of poor health and development problems?

Shedding some light on the answer is a recently published evaluation of the Early Start programme for families with young children. It found that around 13 percent of Christchurch families were in need of family support services. According to the report, "These referral statistics provide an indicator of the level of need for services within the community..."

The report describes a trial which took place from 2000 - 2003. Clients were recruited by Plunket nurses. Of 4,523 families seen over a nineteen month period, 13 percent were deemed eligible, that is, in need of family support services. Of those, 443 agreed to participate. These clients were then randomly assigned to either the Early Start programme or a control group.

The majority, sixty four percent, were single-parent families. Approximately 90 percent of the families were dependent on welfare.

On examination of the mother's childhood it was found that over half had been raised in a single-parent family; over half had witnessed inter- parental violence and over 40 percent reported being the victim of physical or sexual abuse. The mean age of first ever pregnancy was 19, 80 percent of the pregnancies were unplanned and the majority of the mothers, 63 percent, smoked during the pregnancy.

The programme involved a service delivery arm and a research arm. The control group was subject to the research arm. The participants were interviewed at the start and then at 12, 24 and 36 month intervals. After one year 21 percent had dropped out of the Early Start programme; after two years 35 and at three years 40 percent. There were no particular factors contributing to the losses.

When the two groups were compared the Early Start programme had delivered "small but consistent benefits in a number of areas relating to child health, education, child abuse, parenting and behavioural outcomes".

But in the area of "maternal health and well-being; family stability; family violence; family material circumstances and family exposure to stress and crisis .....no differences emerged."

The report commented that welfare dependence, single parenthood and limited education "conspired to create a situation in which such families were subject to a 'poverty trap' where welfare benefits were likely to provide a very similar level of income to that which could be obtained from full-time workforce participation. A clear challenge facing current social policy is to supplement home visitation methods such as Early Start with policies that both reduce welfare dependence and increase the earning capacity of these families."

A couple of important points about welfare dependence in New Zealand are confirmed by this report. One, it highlights the significant inter- generational component of welfare dependence and associated factors.

Two, if the statistics can be extrapolated and the authors seem happy to suggest so, it appears that at least forty percent of welfare families are in need of extra intervention. However, agencies have only limited ability to provide services that will make a difference.

While the results for children were mildly encouraging, changing the behaviour and circumstances of mothers (and fathers where they were involved) was a different matter.

Social service volunteers frequently find that the benefit system can be more of a hindrance than help. The provision of cash welfare to these families acts to exacerbate problems. While making a difference to just one family is absolutely worth the effort, without significant policy reform we are only scratching the surface.

Lindsay Mitchell, petitioner for a Parliamentary review of the DPB www.lindsaymitchell.blogspot.com


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