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Mining the land and undermining the children

Letter from Elsewhere - By Anne Else

Mining the land and undermining the children

What do conservation estates and domestic purposes beneficiaries have in common? Both of them look after the country’s most valuable assets. But you wouldn’t know it from the way John Key and his government have been acting lately.

In the latest Sunday Star Times (28 March), Rod Oram lambasts the government for “failing to seek a robust, long-term solution” to the mining versus conservation issue – one which would ensure that “the economy and environment, treated well, can enhance each other”. Instead, he says, “tthe government has failed utterly to be strategic. Instead it is trying to get by being simply tactical.”

He goes on to criticise vague assessments about the value of minerals: “This is far short of the detailed analysis needed to develop a strategy to deliver true economic value.”

Meanwhile, over in Paula Bennett’s corner, exactly the same kind of muddled tactics seem to be driving policy decisions. Parents who receive the domestic purposes benefit, but are not widows, and whose youngest child is six, are going to have to front up and explain what they’re doing to find at least 15 hours a week of paid work. If they don’t do enough, they – and their children - risk losing half the benefit.

John Key has been hard at work making claims about the immense savings to be made from getting more DPB parents into employment and off the benefit. In February he claimed that if 100 of those on the DPB get back to work there could be gains to the taxpayer of $10m over their lifetime. Just recently he upped the ante, claming that getting 5 percent of DPB recipients (around 2150 sole parents) with a child over 6 back to work and off the benefit would save $200 million.

Well, not exactly. As Susan St John explained in the Herald last week, this calculation (a) assumes that each of those sole parents would have spent another 6.5 years on the DPB (which doesn’t match the usual pattern – a few years on benefit while children are young, then either repartnering or finding a viable job); (b) doesn’t take into account the payments made by the other parent, which go straight to the state to offset the DPB; and (c), most important of all, completely fails to note that if you’re working enough hours to come off the DPB, then you’re almost certain to be getting the full Working for Families package instead. For 2150 sole-parents over 6.5 years, that would add up to $170 million.

So like the much-vaunted profits from mining Schedule 4 land, the massive savings said to result from pushing more mothers – because it is mainly mothers we’re talking about – off the DPB start to look decidedly vague, in fact pretty shonky, once they’re properly analysed.

The other sleight of hand going on here is that 15 hours. Why 15? At minimum wage, that’s nowhere near enough to be able to go off the DPB, because you have to work 20 hours a week, all year, to get the full Working for Families top-ups. (Whereas if you have a partner, one of you can stay at home with the kids and the other one can work just 30 hours.) And in any case, as soon as you earn more than $100 gross (just raised from the $80 it’s been held at for over 20 years, but that’s still less than 8 hours at minimum wage) you start to lose much of your earnings in benefit abatement.

Taking proper care of our irreplaceable conservation estate is crucial for our future. But taking proper care of the next generation is just as crucial. Demographer Ian Pool has repeatedly pointed out how lucky we are to have more kids than most other developed countries.

Given current trends, half of those kids’ mothers are likely to have experienced a period of time as a sole parent before they’re 50. And even in the best of circumstances – meaning you’ve already got a job that pays enough so you don’t have to go on the DPB – looking after children on your own is a struggle anyway (I know, I’ve been there).

Sole parent households are more likely than any other household type to be living in poverty. The majority of the 150,000 children still living in poverty, even after Working for Families, live in such households. That’s not exactly a strong incentive to go on the DPB, let alone stay on it.

It’s perfectly clear that although DPB numbers don’t alter as widely from year to year as unemployment benefit numbers do (kids last longer than jobs), broadly the two keep pace. In December 2004, there were almost 66,000 unemployment benefits being paid and just over 109,000 DPBs. Both fell steadily as jobs grew, until December 2008, when they started to rise as jobs were lost. By December 2009 they were back up to 2004 levels – exactly what you would expect in a major recession, but still far fewer than in the 1990s.

If the government really cared about the wellbeing of children with a parent on the DPB, it would take the trouble to find out what would work best. Seventeen years ago a solidly researched study of sole mothers found that the worst-off group with the worst prospects were older mothers with few marketable skills who had experienced domestic violence (and were often still experiencing it in some form). Little or nothing was being done to help women in this then, and even less is being done now.

One such woman was Isabella Ruka. She was convicted of fraud for claiming the Domestic Purposes Benefit despite living with a male partner. Yet that socalled partner was violent towards her, gave her and her son no financial support, and held her in the relationship against her will. In 1996 the Court of Appeal overturned her conviction, ruling that her situation did not meet the definition of “in the nature of marriage”.

Now women who have at least managed to escape such situations, but have virtually no hope of finding a job that’s secure enough and pays enough to keep them and their children (even with the help of Working for Families, which is in fact a parents’ benefit by a different name) face having their benefit cut by half. Exactly how will that help them find, not work – they already have work, it’s called parenting – but a job?

I understand why many pairs of parents, working incredibly hard at home and in both their jobs just to stay afloat, feel so resentful about what they see as the cushy, bludging life of those on the DPB. But in the vast majority of cases, it isn’t like that at all. Women use it when they have to and go off it as soon as they possibly can. They could certainly do with some real help, and raising the allowable earnings threshold to a realistic level – at least 12 hours of the ninimum wage, where it would be if it had kept pace with inflation - would be a good place to start, along with restoring the axed retraining provisions.

Bennett’s punitive policies are simultaneously pointless and point-scoring. They’re designed not to help families in trouble, but to appeal to those voters who will never have to apply for a DPB (or think they wil never have to – though for women, the odds make that far from a safe bet).

The tragedy is that, as with the conservation estate, once kids’ lives are blasted by poverty they’re extremely difficult to restore. But the calculations to show why we should be investing more, not less, in them when they need it most, and the strategies to make that investment work for us all, are not being done, any more than they are for protecting the land.

So as Rod Oram says: “Once again we’ll end up with a fatally flawed stalemate on an issue vital to the wellbeing of the nation.”

*************

Anne Else is a Wellington writer and social commentator. Her occasional column will typically appear on a Monday. You can subscribe to receive Letter From Elsewhere by email when it appears via theFree My Scoop News-By-Email Service. Anne blogs at http://elsewoman.blogspot.com

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