It’s better policy needed, not marriage incentives

When is Family First going to wake up and realise that the modern family is not one that fits within their conservative, traditionalist box?

Last week they launched yet another new report, this time presenting the solution to reducing domestic abuse and poverty in New Zealand: If you get married and stay married, your kids won’t suffer as much neglect and are less likely to be abused.

As they more than likely do at the hands of their sole mothers, if the report is to be believed.

A range of measures incentivising marriage are suggested. Yes, a safe supportive and nurturing family environment is important for the wellbeing of children, but tax breaks for married couples? It seems to me that what has got Family First so irked is the widespread departure from the traditional Christian values associated with marriage. According to their findings, the hedonistic whims of the non-married (around two in every five couples, in 2006) will surely have bad endings. It couldn’t possibly be OK to co-parent in a de-facto relationship, without abusing the kids, could it?

In May this year Family First fired their guns at sole-parent families, citing these as a prevalent reason for child poverty in New Zealand, claiming that the sole parent benefit (then the Domestic Purposes Benefit or DPB) introduced in 1974 was partially to blame as it made it easier for parents to split. Of course a sole parent has less money, if the former partner is no longer supporting them or if two incomes have been replaced by one. I’m sure there’d be some pretty darn good reasons why a couple would split when there are children. But Family First would probably have those kids grow up with an unhealthy view of what a relationship should look like. Sins of the fathers notwithstanding.

The contexts within society are changing and fluid, a fact recognised when the DPB was first introduced. The DPB provided a means for parents to get up on their feet again after the trauma of a failed relationship, abusive or not. Unfortunately, policy changes which came later had the effect of making this safety net far less robust.

Benefits were slashed in the 1990s, when the ‘mother of all budgets’ put paid to any hope a sole parent had to recoup some of their children’s lost income. Surely this made it harder than ever for low-income parents to separate, or for women to escape abusive partners, forcing them into positions of greater reliance and dependence.

Stringent rules around relationships mean that sole parents are stripped of benefits when they re-partner, despite whether the relationship is unstable or abusive. Sole parents are punished by law if they are found to have broken these rules, and financially crippled, even if innocent. Thus a new partner is expected to financially support children not their own, and has control over the household where the parent was once receiving sole parent support, creating financial dependency in a situation where it may be unhealthy.

Today's sole parent benefit makes it less easy for parents to separate, when the children would be better off out of the situation.

Why is society so unkind to sole parents?

According to Associate Professor Susan St John, Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) economics spokesperson, in a May 2016 article for The Daily Blog, “What is needed is a total review of how WINZ regards relationships in the welfare system. We should create conditions for good relationships to flourish. For example we should have individualised benefits like NZ Super.”

The latest Family First report talks about levels of abuse of children in families where there are non-married couple, or sole, parents. Family First says that, “Children being raised by their married biological parents are by far the safest from violence – and so too are the adults.” But where are the figures for intimate partner abuse within married couples?

For a better understanding of this picture Family First need to look the rates of intimate partner violence across the board. In 2015, one in three women reported that they had been abused either physically or sexually by a partner at some stage in their lives, while over half reported to have suffered emotional abuse. Children raised by parents who commit intimate partner abuse may not be being physically abused themselves, but they are at risk of other kinds of abuse, and they are at risk of becoming perpetrators themselves in the future.

We only need to look to situations like that for Destiny O’Brien, whose family would be so much better away from their father. But because poverty came hand-in-hand with crime and abuse, her whānau suffered.

Family First said, “Like non-Māori, Māori children with two-parent working families have very low abuse rates.” The pattern shows that it is poverty that is the precursor to abuse. Why isn’t there a better plan for reducing poverty?

In the 2013 report Child abuse: what role does poverty play? CPAG said that “current policy responses to the tragedy of New Zealand’s child abuse are focused not on dealing with the causes of abuse but on reporting and monitoring, and risk assessment … [and] fails to address the deep and persistent poverty of many New Zealand children and their families.

To set a better precedent for child wellbeing in New Zealand we need policies that will help families thrive and get them up out of that dark place from where abuse is born.

According to the CPAG Child Abuse report:

Changes to income policies such as the level of the minimum wage, the level of welfare payments for parents, family support policies and the structure of the tax system all help determine the level of household income. Housing policies have an impact on whether children live in affordable housing, whether they live in overcrowded housing, and whether their family or neighbourhood experiences high levels of transience. Likewise, education and health policies can contribute to protecting children from abuse, in part because they operate to alleviate the stress experienced by parents, particularly sole parents with little support.

We need to support families better by addressing the root causes of abuse, such as entrenched poverty and systemic discrimination. We need to avoid labelling and stigmatising sole parents for choosing to remove themselves and their children from unhealthy relationships. We need to encourage parents and equip them with the means to give their children the very best they can, and that includes the ability to leave situations of abuse without finding themselves in poverty.