When I read that New Zealand marriage rates continue to decline I wondered if that had any influence on poverty and housing shortages.
A report from Family First authored by Lindsay Mitchel says it does.
The executive summary says:
Despite families being much smaller, parents being older, mothers being better educated and having much higher employment rates, child poverty has risen significantly since the 1960s.
In 1961, 95 percent of children were born to married couples; by 2015 the proportion had fallen to 53 percent.
For Maori, 72 percent of births were to married parents in 1968; by 2015 the proportion had fallen to just 21 percent.
In 2015, 27 percent of registered births were to cohabiting parents. The risk of parental separation by the time the child is aged five is, however, 4-6 times greater than for married parents.
Cohabiting relationships are becoming less stable over time.
Cohabiting parents are financially poorer than married parents. They form an interim group between married and single parent families.
Single parent families make up 28 percent of all families with dependent children. These families are the poorest in New Zealand.
51% of children in poverty live in single parent families.
Single parents have the lowest home ownership rates and the highest debt ratios.
Children in sole parent families are often exposed to persistent poverty and constrained upward mobility.
Of registered births in 2015, 5% had no recorded father details and a further 15% had fathers living at a different home address to the mother.
Of all babies born in 2015, 17.5% (10,697) were reliant on a main benefit by the end of their birth year, over two thirds on a single parent benefit. Over half had Maori parents/caregivers.
The higher poverty rates for Maori and Pasifika children are reflected in the greater number of sole parent and cohabiting families.
Rapidly changing family structure has contributed significantly to increasing income inequality.
Child poverty is consistently blamed on unemployment, low wages, high housing costs and inadequate social security benefits. Little attention has been given to family structure.
Despite marriage being the best protector against child poverty it has become politically unfashionable – some argue insensitive – to express such a view.
But if there is to be any political will to solve child poverty the issue has to be confronted.
It is no coincidence that the increase in sole parenting and the educational, financial, health and other social problems associated with it, started with the increase of benefit dependence:
While child poverty also occurs among two parent families, its severity and longevity tend to differ, primarily because two parent families generally derive their income from the market which is subject to fluctuations; single parents are more likely to derive their income from a benefit 17 which is reasonably static and not subject to market fluctuations. Ironically, while benefit income is more secure, market income is more likely to improve over time. . .
Benefits for most people are supposed to provide temporary support until they are able to look after themselves. Most people in paid work are able to earn more through pay increases and as they gain more experience, better qualifications.
Before the Domestic Purposes Benefit, people were trapped in abusive, dysfunctional and desperately unhappy marriages.
The DPB enabled people, usually but not always mothers, to get out of those relationships and most don’t stay dependent on it for long. But it also enabled people, again usually but not always women, to have children without supportive partners- in both the emotional and financial sense.
. . . a trend towards the formation of de facto relationships began, as did the increasing incidence of un-partnered mothers keeping and raising their children alone. Separating the two patterns poses substantial difficulties but was attempted by Kaye Goodger in 1998 (see graph below). 34 Of particular interest are the lines labelled “ex-nuptial children retained by single mothers” and “ex-nuptial births with no resident father”. The number grew from a few hundred in the early 1960s to around 13,000 by 1996, representing more than half of all ex-nuptial births. . .
It takes two people to make a baby but too often one is left to bring the child up without the help of a spouse and ex
Frequently, young un-partnered mothers fall into what MSD research describes as the “early starter” group of sole parents who, “…appeared to be particularly disadvantaged. Half of them lived in high deprivation areas with a New Zealand Deprivation Index (NZDep) rating of 9 or 10. Levels of debt to the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) and Special Needs Grant use suggest that many struggled to cope financially.” 46
In 2005, this group accounted for 45 percent of all the children dependent on the DPB.These particular children will often be subject to the long-term deprivation associated with sole parents who are chronically or repeatedly single.47 Their mothers may view a benefit as more reliable than, and preferable to, a partner. Yet being ‘without a current partner’ has been classified as a risk factor for child vulnerability by the Growing Up in New Zealand (GUiNZ) study.48 It is also associated with other low socio-economic risk factors. . .
But too often, adding a partner to the mix endangers the children.
At November 2011, 26,000 women receiving the DPB had included additional new-born children: 20 percent had added 1 more child; 6 percent added two; 2 percent had added 3 subsequent children and 1 percent had added four or more.49 Each percentage point equates to almost 900 mothers. Between 2006 and 2010 this amounted to an annual average of 4,190 subsequent children (or 7% of average annual total births over same period) added to a sole parent benefit. Only 610 were added to other main benefits. . .
In conclusion, an extended explanation of this particular pathway into sole parenthood has been provided because children who appear in the benefit system from birth – or shortly thereafter – form a particularly disadvantaged group. The rate of early child benefit-dependence through un-partnered birth appears to have been declining very slowly since the early 1990s. This coincides with general child poverty rates (see p 7). The exposure of these children to low income is prolonged because their mothers became dependent very young without educational qualifications or work experience and leaving welfare poses numerous challenges. . .
This is why the government is putting so much effort, and money, into working with young single parents. Helping them look after their babies, gain qualifications and get work is the best way out of poverty.
With the decline in marriage has come an increase in cohabitation. Some of these relationships lead to marriage and some last longer than some marriages, but:
In 1995, New Zealand research found:
“About 46 percent of cohabiting first unions aged 20-59 were converted into a marriage, and 44 percent were dissolved (11 percent were still intact at the time of survey). Of those that were either dissolved or converted into a marriage, over 90 percent did so in the first five years.” 61
In line with this, the Christchurch Child Development Study found that cohabitation is a foremost risk factor for breakdown of a child’s family in its first five years with 43.9 percent of de facto couples separating compared to 10.9 percent of married parents.62 Not dissimilar statistics were produced by the Jubilee Centre which analysed data from the United Kingdom Longitudinal Study63 and showed:
“For cohabiting parents, the child’s earliest years are a time of disproportionate risk, with 37 percent of couples separating by the time the child is five compared with less than 6 percent of married couples – more than a six-fold difference. By the time the child is 16, 16 percent of married couples will have separated, compared to 66 percent of cohabiting couples – a four-fold difference.” . .
The report quotes research which shows families where the parents are in a defacto relationship are poorer than those with married parents.
In New Zealand, according to MSD, “A Household Savings Survey (HSS) carried out in 2001 revealed clear relationships between savings, in the form of net assets, and legal marital status, family size, family type, and age. The net worth of couples living in the same household varied considerably according to whether they were legally married or not. The median net worth of all married couples was $201,400 compared with $49,500 for all unmarried couples (age-standardised data are unavailable).” 73 . . .
Higher annual before tax incomes (from all sources) for married couples are evident. Larger proportions of de facto people appear in the low income groups, while in the higher income groups de facto numbers drop away quite sharply.
The income differences for New Zealand couples are not as stark as in the US. This may be, at least partially, a result of Working for Families (WFF). Income redistribution through the tax/benefit system reduces the difference between rich and poor – so to some extent, between married and unmarried couples. WFF is a substantial transfer. The New Zealand Initiative describes how “…cash benefits exceeded direct tax paid on average for each of these [lowest] five deciles.” 74
There is another important point to be made. Not only are cohabiting parents generally poorer, given their greater propensity for separation, financial resources available for children post-dissolution are also more limited. Again the risk of child poverty is heightened. . .
The report goes on to look at ethnic breakdown and the role of unemployment.
It then notes:
Just as family structure plays a significant role in the incidence and degree of child poverty, so it does in levels of inequality of income and wealth across New Zealand society. The two go hand-in-hand. In the matter of inequality, most attention is paid to unemployment, market forces, so-called “neoliberal” policies, labour market deregulation and the shortcomings of capitalism in general. In New Zealand at least, little interest has been taken in the role of family structure. The closest to acknowledging the role of family structure was a 2013 report from the NZ Institute for Economic Research (NZIER) which claimed: “The distribution of income in New Zealand and around the OECD became more unequal after the 1960s as societies became more liberal and households changed.” 102 . .
Then it concludes:
This paper has demonstrated the clear differences between incomes in married, de facto and sole parent families with children. Though child poverty has more dimensions than income alone, the links between household finances and material deprivation are important. Yet, in the very many discussions and reports about child poverty, the elephant in the room – family structure – is constantly ignored. Unemployment, low wages, high housing costs and insufficient social security benefits are consistently blamed for child poverty yet a major culprit (if not the major culprit) is family malformation, that is, a lack of two married committed parents.
There are at least three belief systems which have heavily influenced social science thinking, which in turn influences policy-making, which in turn influences public behaviours. The direction in which these influences operate may be fluid and certainly there is something of the ‘chicken and egg’ phenomenon at work. For instance, unmarried childbirth began to rise prior to the advent of the DPB. But it accelerated rapidly in its wake.
The three relevant ideologies at work since 1961 have been feminism; socialism and moral relativism.
Feminism sought to increase the choices and freedoms of women (but may have inadvertently overlooked those of their children). The ‘feminisation of poverty’, the idea that women are the disproportionately poor gender – and not just in developing countries – is sound and has led directly to greater child poverty. Replacing reliance on a male partner with reliance on the state ‘partner’ has not enriched those mothers.
Socialism sought to equalise incomes of people through state redistribution of wealth (yet would appear to have increased child poverty). Welfare payments that were generous relative to unskilled wages have undermined the formation and maintenance of parental relationships and trapped generations of families on benefits.
Moral relativism sought to suspend moral judgments about people’s decisions and behaviours regardless of contribution to poor personal and societal outcomes, especially for children.
The political left – though the left/right divide has become less distinct in New Zealand – tends to most strongly adhere to these belief systems and resists evidence that their application is failing.
To identify marriage as beneficial for the outcomes of children necessarily criticises other forms of partnerships so, in the eyes of many, must be avoided. Offence to any group or class seems undesirable no matter how much the negative impact might be on children.
There may be a legitimate fear of discrimination among bureaucrats constrained by human rights legislation? There may be a resistance to recognising the positive economic role of marriage in a secular country? . .
For politicians there’s a fear of expressing support for marriage because it just sounds fusty and unfashionable (excepting same-sex marriage). Accusations of ‘social engineering’ might be levelled.
Examples of the US promoting marriage through government policy could be raised as a distinctly unwelcome spectre. Many New Zealanders harbour anti-American sentiments.
It is not the intention of this paper to explore at length why marriage has fallen out of favour with most social science academics and policy-makers.
The aim has been to show that marriage provides the best economic environment for raising children. The evidence is overwhelming and incontrovertible.
The paper doesn’t go into why families with married parents have better outcomes nor show if other factors are relevant. Are there, for examples, differences in the education, employment and family support of people who choose to marry and those who don’t which could influence outcomes?
Marriage doesn’t guarantee successful outcomes for the couple and their children, nor do de facto relationships and solo parenting guarantee failure.
However, this paper shows that families with married parents are more likely to succeed than the others. They also need only one house.
The media has been full of stories of homeless people.
Among them have been the mother of eight children facing huge debts and at-risk youth engaging in sex to get somewhere to sleep.
These reports only ever tell a very small part of the story and rarely ask, let alone answer, how the people got into these dire situations and where are the children’s father or fathers and extended families.
As Martin van Beynen says:
The current weeping, wailing and gross over-simplification of the problems at the root of violence and dysfunction will not achieve anything. . .
We have tried everything and all we have created is a culture of dependence, entitlement, helplessness and irresponsibility. . .
The state is a very poor substitute for families and many, though not all, of the examples that reach the media demonstrate what happens when people claim their rights without accepting responsibility.