NZ Centre of Political Research 30 August 2015
Child abuse has again been in the headlines over the last few weeks, most recently following the release of the Children’s Commissioner’s State of Care report into the treatment of children in the care of Child, Youth and Family (CYF). The report contained a number of recommendations, which the Minister of Social Development Anne Tolley has said will be taken into account in the major overhaul of the agency that is presently underway.
Leading the review is Paula Rebstock, an economist and the former Chair of the Commerce Commission, who has already directed far-reaching reforms for the government into Social Welfare and the Department of Corrections. It is understood that a ‘social investment’ approach is being promoted for CYF, which will put children’s needs at its centre – as well as focussing on what works and how to get best value for money. The report is said to be with Cabinet and is expected to be released in its final form by the end of the year.
However, no matter what structural changes to the child protection agency are introduced, nor what new processes are brought in, the problems of abused and damaged children will continue until the government stops paying women who are not in loving and stable relationships to have babies.
The cycle of abuse is largely intergenerational. Children are shaped by their parents and their home environment. If these are not conducive to good child-rearing practices, society will suffer. The research on this is conclusive.
In spite of the best of intentions of those who influenced New Zealand’s early social welfare laws, by creating an environment in which violence and abuse can flourish, sole parent benefits are one of the single biggest factors in the child abuse equation. But since child advocacy groups and children’s authorities shy away from this issue – reforms in this area have been inadequate.
So why is it that sole parent welfare is not being adequately addressed? Strange as it may sound, a key reason is feminism.
A reminder of the radical nature of the feminist dogma that drove reforms throughout the Western world in the sixties and seventies can be seen in the rhetoric of leading feminist Linda Gordon, a New York University Professor who said, “The nuclear family must be destroyed… Whatever its ultimate meaning, the break-up of families now is an objectively revolutionary process.” Or the call of another feminist leader Sheila Cronin: “Since marriage constitutes slavery for women, it is clear that the women’s movement must concentrate on attacking this institution. Freedom for women cannot be won without the abolition of marriage.”
New Zealand feminists thought that securing government funding for mothers who left their husbands was the right thing to do. They wanted a regular state income to sustain these women and their children, without the need to work for a living. Their battle led to the establishment of the Domestic Purposes Benefit (DPB) in the early seventies, as a stand-alone ‘wage’ for women escaping violent relationships.
The problem was that over time the perverse incentives built into the scheme created a raft of unintended consequences and detrimental outcomes.
If a couple was having relationship difficulties, instead of trying to reconcile the problems and keep the marriage together – for the sake of the children – the DPB paid the woman a secure state income if she split the family up.
The DPB was only available if mothers did not let fathers have too much involvement in their children’s upbringing. In spite of fathers being society’s strongest protectors of children – and much needed male role models – the system effectively drove them away.
The benefit was essentially only available to mothers who did not work. If a woman tried to take on a job and get back into the workforce and mainstream society – to become independent of the state – the benefit abatement rates were so punishing, that they became a serious disincentive to employment.
While the benefit was paid to a mother to care for her children, there were no strings attached. This meant that if she failed to provide proper custodial care for her children, decent nutrition, appropriate health care, or even regular schooling, there were few, if any, consequences.
Furthermore, built into the system was a simple but destructive incentive – if the mother had more children, she got more money. This meant that even if her lifestyle was totally unsuitable for raising a new baby, she was guaranteed a higher income if she got pregnant and had another child.
In crude terms the feminists had created the environment for baby farming to flourish.
While most women who entered the welfare system stayed for a relatively short time and raised their children well, for a vulnerable minority the DPB became a trap. Over the years, it created the opportunity for unskilled women to secure a regular income – and often a state house – without having to work. Without the stability and discipline that comes from working for a living and contributing to civil society, indolent and destructive lifestyles were all too common. Not only did the children suffer, but so too did the community.