Lindsay Mitchell points out two contrasting approaches to welfare:
Perhaps the single-most underrated and under-reported issue in New Zealand is the practice of adding children to existing benefits. Oodles is spoken and written about child poverty, particularly by the Prime Minister who appointed herself Minister of Child Poverty Reduction in 2017. But the fact that 6,000 children are added to an existing benefit and a further 3-4,000 are reliant on welfare by their first birthday never rates a mention. The numbers have varied only slightly over the past 30 years and persist at very high levels. One in ten babies goes home from hospital to a benefit- dependent family.
Most of those one in ten babies will be behind most babies who go home to a family where at least one adult is in work from the start.
The links between welfare dependence from birth and poor, if not disastrous outcomes, have now been well-explored by institutions like AUT and Treasury. The latter identified 4 indicators:
1) a finding of abuse or neglect;
2) spending most of their lifetime supported by benefits;
3) having a parent who’d received a community or custodial sentence; and
4) a mother with no formal qualifications. . .
The outcomes for those children are much poorer than for children in families not dependent on benefits.
They are more likely to have contact with Youth Justice services, leave school without qualifications, follow their parents onto a benefit, and be jailed. They are also more likely to be Maori.
Is it kind to perpetuate this intergenerational failure?
Is it kind to contribute to these bad outcomes?
Is it kind to foster the causes rather than address them?
Act doesn’t think so.
They point out that it isn’t acceptable for these families to keep having children when other families wait and sacrifice, and sometimes never have their own or additional children. More to the point, it is entirely unacceptable for children to be carelessly thrown into environments that harm them and rob them of their potential.
ACT’s policy says that if someone already on a benefit adds another child their benefit income will thereafter be managed. Rent and utilities will be paid direct, with the large part of the remainder of their benefit loaded onto an electronic card to be used in specified retail outlets. Work and Income already has the technology to do this. They operate income management for Youth and Young Parent beneficiaries in this fashion.
Under this regime children should be guaranteed a secure roof over their heads instead of the insecure transience resulting from unpaid rents, evictions and homelessness. Their schooling would be less interrupted with increased geographical stability. They should have adequate food in their tummies in and out of term time (not assured under school lunch programmes). Their mother may be encouraged to take advantage of the fully- subsidised, highly effective, long-acting contraceptives now available, ameliorating the overcrowding which is a significant factor in New Zealand’s horribly high rate of rheumatic fever. Perhaps most importantly their parent(s) will actually decide working is a better option if they want agency over their income. There is a risk caregivers will try to supplement their incomes in other undesirable, illegal ways but no policy is risk free, and this almost certainly already happens to some degree.
Increasingly throwing money at dysfunctional families provides no assurance parents will suddenly become better budgeters, or not simply spend more on harmful behaviours. Gambling and substance abuse don’t just hurt the parent. They hurt the child directly (damage in the womb, physical abuse or neglect under the influence) not to mention indirectly through parental role-modelling that normalizes bad behaviours, especially violence, to their children.
The last National government took an actuarial approach to benefit dependence, worked out the long term cost and began putting more money into preventing benefit dependency. It was working but the current government has undone that good work.
There is a need for a welfare safety net and with the Covid-19 induced recession numbers needing benefits are already increasing but welfare should not be a life sentence.
There are sound financial and social benefits to stopping people going on benefits and getting those on benefits off them as soon as possible.
The current government’s approach could be seen as being kind. It stopped sanctions against people who could work but don’t and women who don’t name the fathers of their babies.
That isn’t kind to the adults and it’s even worse for the children.
The two approaches to child benefit dependence are a world apart. One continues the ‘freedom’ of the adult to use taxpayer’s money as they wish; the other prioritizes the best interests of the child -their right to security, stability and safety – or, as ACT puts it, what the taxpayer thinks they are paying for.
The country cannot go on merely paying lip-service to the idea of ‘breaking the cycle’. Now is not the time for more of the same. More than ever New Zealand cannot afford the social cost and lost potential that occurs monotonously in an easily identifiable portion of every generation.
The choice at the election is stark – a vote for any of the parties currently in government that are perpetuating the cycle of benefit dependency and the poor financial and social outcomes that result or a vote for a National-Act government that will address the causes and break the cycle.
The truly kind way is to vote for change for the sake of the children.