Lobby group report ignores the realities.
This week I opened the paper to find some astonishing "news" - a lack of marriage is to blame for child poverty.
I've spent the better part of six years reading and researching the issue of child poverty, and what we need to do to resolve this complex problem in New Zealand
And yet here it was, the silver bullet we have all been looking for. Marriage. Getting hitched. Tying the knot. It turns out that we didn't need an Expert Advisory Group on child poverty, or any OECD analysis for that matter - apparently all we really need is a pastor and a party.
At least, that's the world according to Family First, who commissioned a report this week which, they claim, provides "overwhelming and incontrovertible" evidence that when it comes to child poverty, a lack of marriage is our problem, and it's simply become "politically unfashionable" to talk about it.
I'm happy to talk about it; in fact all of Parliament is. We debated the ins and outs of the institution not that long ago - it was called the Marriage Equality debate. Oddly, I don't recall Family First supporting the idea of increasing access to marriage when it came to same-sex couples. But I digress.
The major piece of evidence Family First use to back up their claims? Child poverty has risen significantly since the 1960s, and more people were married back then. I am paraphrasing, but that's the general gist. And yes, those two pieces of information are true. But are they linked? You only have to look at where child poverty figures really jump around to figure that bit out. Back in the mid-1980s, child poverty numbers (after taking into account housing costs) were about half the levels they are now. What happened to cause the spike? De facto relationships and single parenting didn't all of a sudden become "on trend".
What happened was Ruth Richardson's Mother of all Budgets. Government support was slashed, unemployment rates were grim, and child poverty, as you would expect, went up significantly. Equally, you can also see a downward trend in child poverty numbers around the early 2000s when Working for Families was introduced.
So what about the other claims in the report? How about "51 per cent of children in poverty live in single-parent families". Stating the obvious, surely. Single parent equals single income.
So, Family First, here's my view for what it's worth. Families will take many forms. Some children will be raised by one parent, some will be raised by two, possibly with some distance in between, and some will be raised by four. But the other factors Family First was so quick to dismiss - low wages and staggering housing costs - mean we have 305,000 children in poverty. And this is the stuff that needs to change. It's time we faced reality.
I wrote a response below but have been told that only a 150 word letter-to-the-editor will be accepted. She gets nearly 500 words to attack and I get 150 to defend.
Here is my full rejected response.
Labour, not Family First, ignores realities
The Family First report Child Poverty and Family Structure: What is the evidence telling is?, attacked by Jacinda Ardern in last week's Sunday Star Times, traced the change in family structure from 1961 - the year more babies were born than ever before, or ever since. Families were much bigger, mother's educational qualifications far fewer and their work force participation much lower. Yet child poverty was also very low. Under 5% of families with children lived in the two lowest household income bands.
Using the measure Labour/Greens favour (because it provides the highest estimate and greatest political impact) child poverty grew to around 16% by 1990 following 15 years of growing unemployment and numbers of sole parent families. Because so many children relied on welfare, it then shot up after the benefit cuts, peaked around 2001 and has fluctuated since. In 2014 it still sat at 29% despite unemployment falling to 5.7 percent.
Ardern says Family First ignores realities. Here is the reality she and Labour ignore. The strongest correlate for child poverty is the sole parent rate. Ardern is correct to say that de facto relationships and single parenting didn't, "...all of a sudden become 'on trend'." The growth in the rate of each is tracked in the report. Increasingly single parent families became the product of births to single females and this is now a well-established pattern. In 2015, 5% of babies had no father details on their birth certificate; a further 15% had fathers with different residential addresses to the mothers. This is then reflected in the number of babies who will be benefit-dependent either immediately or shortly after their birth - 17.5 % of all babies born in 2015. It is somewhat fatalistic to bring a baby into the world with no means of supporting it and then start complaining about low wages, low benefits and high housing costs. That's after the fact.
Yes, two parent families also experience poverty but it tends to be short-term because their incomes are generally derived from the market. Sole parent incomes are generally derived from benefits which create a trap for poorly educated and unskilled mothers and lead to long-term child poverty exposure. New Zealand's largest longitudinal study, SoFIE, showed that two parent families move out of poverty faster. Those most likely to stay poor over many years are Maori and sole parents.
Marriage comes into the income equation because marriages are far more stable than de facto relationships. By the time a child turns five, his parents are 4-6 times more likely to have separated if they were cohabiting rather than married. This high dissolution rate also drives sole parenting, leading to more child poverty. But even stable cohabiting relationships are often poorer because they are second or third partnerships struggling to support children from previous unions.
Ardern claims "low wages and staggering house costs" are the major reasons 305,000 children live in poverty.
Housing costs are contributing latterly, especially in Auckland. But the report details evidence from the New Zealand Institute for Economic Research that finds, with regard to the long-term picture, "...the cost of renting has remained broadly stable relative to income over many decades." Child poverty pre-dates the housing affordability problem by a long margin.
Perhaps relatively higher wages contributed to lower child poverty in the 1960s but does Ardern think voters want a return to state-mandated award rates? And while Working For Families - a Labour policy - goes some way to easing child poverty, it also subsidizes employers keeping wages artificially low. Similarly, rental subsidies go straight into landlord pockets. MSD recently published findings from a literature review that found, "... a proportion of demand-side housing subsidies is capitalised into higher rents in the private rental market."
A government cannot subsidize its way out of child poverty problems. Take another example. Subsidizing sole parents saw their portion of families with children almost triple between the 1976 and 2013 censuses.
The answer to solving the child poverty problem lies largely with individuals. Without a reverse in the trend away from stable, committed two-parent families, child poverty will remain high.