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Muriel Newman’s The Column

Muriel Newman’s The Column

Where is the Clamour for Welfare Reform?

I recently received a letter complaining about a woman with seven children to six different fathers – all of whom have been live-in partners – who has been claiming the sole parent DPB for the past decade. Apparently the present de-facto partner is on the dole and lives with the family in a state house – she pretends he is a boarder.

This family is part of New Zealand’s underclass. It is estimated that as many as 10 percent of families fall into this category. They are characterised by a lack of personal responsibility, an almost non-existent value system, poor commitment to education, and no work ethic. Their children are almost certainly doomed to fail unless a miracle happens and someone rescues them.

Other countries’ proportion of such adults is smaller, as those societies do not condone their harmful and antisocial behaviour. Instead they are marginalised, and may well be forced to live under bridges. Here we pay them – not only to perpetrate their destructive lifestyles, but also to have children. And it need not be small money – a couple on the DPB and the dole, with several children, who know how to work the system, may well bring in upwards of $1,000 a week.

All of this leads me to question why we are doing this? Did the architects of New Zealand’s social welfare system really plan to create an underclass? Is the present system, that has created such an impoverishment of spirit, really helping these families – and, more importantly, their children?

I would respectfully suggest that the answer to these questions is no.

The underclass originated in the Seventies, after the Kirk Labour Government introduced the Domestic Purposes Benefit. The DPB created an opportunity for any female – in any circumstance – who decided she wanted to become a mother, to be supported by the state. If she had more children, she was paid more money, and often provided with a house. Young women with few prospects, and who were failing at school, realised that if they dropped out of school to have babies, they would be given a regular income.

Whether the thousands of teenage girls who, over the years, got pregnant and went on the benefit did so through a conscious decision or an accident is a moot point. What we do know is that before the DPB teenage pregnancy was unacceptable, and brought shame on the family. Such girls were often sent away and their babies adopted out. In other words, the consequences of teenage pregnancy were a disincentive, rather than the ticket to lifetime of financial security it is today.

The problem for many of these young women – who were little more than babies themselves – is that they lacked the emotional maturity needed for parenthood. Worse, they were more secure and better off on a benefit than if they got married or worked. That means that although getting married or taking a job can be the ladder to a better life for a mother and her children, the chances of these occurring were relatively slim.

Unfortunately, since in the benefit system – unlike the workforce – more children means more money, these young women all too often fall into patterns of behaviour which see them moving in and out of relationships with partners who drift around having sex, having children, and having no real desire to settle down, take a job or provide for a family.

In spite of the relentless growth of this underclass over the last 30 years, no government had really had an appetite to change the system. As a result, hard-working taxpayers are forced to pay for destructive lifestyles of people who lack the work ethic.

These families living on the edges of society are the least robust and the most vulnerable. They are also over-represented in providing our future generation of children – and it is these children who are the real victims.

When I think about the children I feel sick to the heart. We are funding the sorts of dysfunctional and selfish behaviours that cause adults to destroy the life chances of children: alcohol or drug foetal syndrome, smoking-induced low birth weights, failure to thrive due to a mother’s indifference to the importance of breastfeeding or proper nutrition.

Such children often arrive at the school gate – if they arrive at all – unable to learn: poor speech, no reading, little knowledge of shapes or colours, their life chances damaged by the traumas they have already suffered.

We have seen it all before in New Zealand’s roll call of tragedy: the children who were victims of appalling abuse within their dysfunctional families – James Whakaruru, Lillybing, and now young Coral Andersen. The men who used and abused their women and children, like Jules Mikus, Benny Haerewa and Bruce Howse. The women who condoned and perpetrated extreme violence – Tanya Whittiker, Rachealle Namana, and Rongomai Paewai.

So why is it that we fail to rise up to say enough is enough? Why is it that we are not clamouring for welfare reform: introducing time limits for the able-bodied on welfare and insisting that they take part in programmes designed to emulate the workforce – full-time Work for the Dole with no increases in income for more children?

If you feel like clamouring, please send this column onto people you know and ask them to contact me with their thoughts!

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