Thursday, December 07, 2023

Oh, the irony

Appointed by new Labour PM Jacinda Ardern in 2018, Cindy Kiro headed the Welfare Expert Advisory Group (WEAG) tasked with reviewing and recommending reforms to the welfare system. Kiro had been Children's Commissioner during Helen Clark's Labour government but returned to academia subsequently.

In 2019 the WEAG reported back with 42 recommendations including:

Recommendation 11: Remove some obligations and sanctions (for example, pre-benefit activities, warrants to arrest sanctions, social obligations, drug-testing sanctions, 52-week reapplication requirements, sanctions for not naming the other parent, the subsequent child work obligation, and the mandatory work ability assessment for people with health conditions or disabilities).

Most of these recommendations were adopted. For example single mothers no longer have to name the fathers of their children and if she has another baby while on a benefit there is no reset of her work obligations.

Yesterday, as Governor General, Dame Cindy Kiro delivered the Speech from the Throne on behalf of the new National - ACT - NZ First government and said:

“Having 11 per cent, or one in nine New Zealanders of working age on a main benefit, means too many people are dependent on the effort of their fellow citizens instead of being self-supporting."

According to the NZ Herald, the Speech also, "... promised the reintroduction of benefit sanctions..."

With her 2019 recommendations Kiro was instrumental in creating the conditions for the number of beneficiaries to increase.

In March 2018, when she began her welfare investigation, there were 273,387 beneficiaries. Now there are 367,152. What sat at 9.3 percent of working-age New Zealanders has risen to 11.5 percent; most worryingly 168,276 children in benefit-dependent families grew to 216,648.

What a rich irony to hear the architect of such  ill-advised reforms forced to describe their result, and advise their removal. One wonders if Ardern had considered this possibility when she appointed Cindy Kiro Governor General in 2021? It is doubtful. Foresight was never her strong point.

Dame Cindy Kiro will remain Governor General until 2026. But she has always been a friend and ally of left-wing governments. Perhaps she deserves kudos for professionally delivering a speech which must have personally rankled. At least she did it with dignity and grace. A lesson there-in for opposition MPs who have showed very little over the past two days.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Oranga Tamariki faces major upheaval under coalition agreement

A hugely significant gain for ACT is somewhat camouflaged by legislative jargon. Under the heading 'Oranga Tamariki' ACT's coalition agreement contains the following item:

    • Remove Section 7AA from the Oranga Tamariki Act 1989

According to Oranga Tamariki:

    "Section 7AA is our practical commitment to the principles of the Te Tiriti o Waitangi/Treaty of Waitangi."

Make no mistake. Its removal will have major ramifications. Section 7AA is essentially the legislation that allows Oranga Tamariki to be a 'by Maori, for Maori' organisation. (In fact, the very name Oranga Tamariki may lose prominence given the coalition arrangement between NZ First and National agrees to: Ensure all public service departments have their primary name in English, except for those specifically related to Māori. Oranga Tamariki does not relate specifically to Maori but a majority of its clients are. In 2022 68 percent of children in state care were Maori.)

Back to Section 7AA. According to Oranga Tamariki the legislation's "end goal"  is to achieve the following:

    "Our vision for tamariki Māori, supported by our partners, is that ‘no tamaiti Māori will need state care’. This aligns to the calls being made by iwi and Māori that tamariki Māori should remain in the care of their whānau, hapū and iwi."

In the most recent report (2022), as  required under Section 7AA, then Minister for Children Kelvin Davis wrote:

    "All mokopuna deserve love and security, and to have access to their culture. This is a right and not a privilege. Ideally, they would be surrounded by their immediate whānau to be   provided this. When that is not possible, close or extended whānau or family is the preference. Māori are fortunate to have wider whānau, hapū and iwi networks to call on for such support."

The Chief Executive, Te Hapimana (Chappie) Te Kani, has been implementing a 'Future Direction Plan' which, "...  builds a strong foundation for the future of tamariki and rangatahi being within the care of whānau, hapū and iwi."

But the new Minister for Children, ACT's Karen Chhour believes the well-being and safety of the child takes priority over cultural considerations.

Many Maori children have links to non-Maori by blood. They are children with mixed parentage. Where there are conflicts over their care - who should or shouldn't step into that role - the non-Maori side of the equation must not be ruled out. That's what Section 7AA effectively does. For that reason it must go.

It is impossible to predict how its removal will play out but such a major disagreement between the Chief Executive and the new Minister will have to be resolved. The political opposition is going to be immense. And it will be ugly. Chhour has already had to withstand being told she is "not kaupapa Maori", to stop viewing the world through a "vanilla lens" and that she should "leave her Pakeha world." All distractions from her overarching goal to put the child's interests firmly first.

For my part I wish the new Minister every ounce of strength and courage. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

On the 50th anniversary of the DPB

The Domestic Purposes Benefit has been variously described as a “disaster” (David McLoughlin 1995), an “economic lifeline” (Jane Kelsey 1995) and “an unfortunate experiment” (Muriel Newman 2009).

Its effect on family formation can never be definitively ascertained. But the growth of the sole parent family dependent on welfare has correlated with more poverty, more child abuse and more domestic violence. Each of these was intended to be reduced by the introduction of the DPB.

The data

On the cusp of Generation X (born mid-to-late 1960s) the two-parent family was overwhelmingly the norm.

In 1966 there were 922,349 dependent children under 16 years of age. 883,239 depended on married men or 96 percent of the total. A further two percent (19,829) depended on widows or widowers. The remainder had unmarried, separated, divorced (and not remarried) parents, or were orphans.[1]

Fast forward to 2023.

In lieu of pending census results, Statistics NZ projected population living arrangements (based on medium fertility, mortality and migration) predicted there would be 5,222,400 people living in New Zealand, which is pretty much on the button. These would include 641,000 couples with 1,123,500 children, and 248,800 sole parents with 404,700 children. Therefore, 73.5 percent of children live with two parents, not necessarily biological or married. Fewer than three quarters. It is important to note that not all of these ‘children’ will be under 18.

Source: Subnational family and household projections, population by living arrangement type, and age, 2018(base)-2043, 

This less-than-perfect comparison between family composition in 1966 and 2023 nevertheless serves the broad purpose of illustrating the stark change that has occurred. And while just under three quarters of children living with two parents still represents a majority, an associated socio-economic gradient means that in the most deprived neighbourhoods, the proportion is much lower.

Why did the change occur, and what role did politics play?

Governments rightly respond to public demand for legislation to accommodate evolving attitudes and practice. But that response can, in turn, accelerate the pace of change. It is said that governments ‘get what they pay for.’ Certainly, a government with a particular agenda – proactive as opposed to reactive – will deliberately use legislation to incentivise the change they want. But unintended incentives also arise with legislation introduced, for example, to alleviate what is thought to be a temporary or minority need.

This chicken-and-egg chain of events characterises the beginning of the decline of two parent families as the norm.


Throughout the 1900s births outside marriage were steadily increasing. The rate grew from 8.93 (per 1,000 unmarried women) in 1911 to 40.63 in 1966. That year 11.5 percent of all births were what was commonly called ‘ex-nuptial’.[2] While many of these babies were adopted out to strangers, increasingly they remained with their mother or cohabiting parents. Not only was it getting harder to find adoptive families, but the tide of sentiment was turning against the practice. Feminist dogma maintained the child belonged with its biological mother without exception. Biological fathers were not accorded the same priority.

Young women - and men – were rejecting the conventions and constraints complied with by earlier generations. Some viewed marriage as a restrictive, archaic institution.

Researcher Kay Goodger writes:

“The reasons for the increase in ex-nuptial fertility in the 1960s … include the large increase in the number of unmarried women in the younger reproductive age groups as the post-war baby boom generation reached adolescence; the increased mobility and autonomy of youth; a rise in pre-marital sex combined with relatively poor access to birth control; and a decline in the practice of marrying because of pregnancy.”

Goodger also notes that although the contraceptive pill became available in 1961 there was initial reluctance to prescribe it to unmarried females.[3]

Add into the mix the urbanisation of Māori and their more liberal attitudes to marriage and childbearing. In 1969 the Status of Children Act removed the discriminatory term ‘illegitimate’ which had never been applicable in Maoridom.

Widows had long been supported through social security benefits which begged the question why other single mothers weren’t similarly helped. As society’s collective (though not consensus) moral view shifted from stigmatising to sympathising with sole parents a policy response became inevitable.

Under a National government, from 1968 a Domestic Purposes Emergency benefit became available, but was not an automatic entitlement. Social welfare case managers could approve an emergency benefit to a sole parent at their discretion. Discretionary granting wasn’t a radical concept at that time. Historically old age and invalid pensions were subject to character tests.


But the numbers receiving this emergency benefit grew rapidly and the 1972 Royal Commission on Social Security recommended a statutory benefit replace it. That came into being on November 14, 1973 under an incoming Labour government (having been hurried along by a National private member’s bill to the same effect.) Relegated to page 18 of the capital’s evening newspaper under the headline, “Rights of appeal, and benefits for all solo parents in new welfare act,”[4] its advent was barely newsworthy. 

What mattered was a sole parent of either sex now had a statutory entitlement to the new benefit regardless of the reason for their sole parenthood. Journalist Colin James noted, “The creation of the domestic purposes benefit made it much more practicable for women to leave unsatisfactory (or unsatisfying) relationships in which otherwise they might have stayed.” [5]

Writer Michael Belgrave describes this shift as the morality-based welfare state being replaced with the rights-based welfare state.[6] Human rights grew ever broader, and the guarantee of meeting those rights led to state support entitlement. The concept of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ beneficiaries was losing traction. Michael Jones wrote that, “… the rights movement, popular in the 1970s and 1980s, reduces or even eliminates any sense of shame at being in receipt of benefits.”[7]

The proportion of children without two cohabiting parents grew quickly thereafter. “Children with a parent on DPB increased from 4% of all children under 18 in 1976, to 17% in 1991, and to 19% in 1996.” [8]

As early as the late seventies alarm bells started to ring. Measures to disincentivise applications (like compulsory marriage counselling) were introduced but unsuccessful in stemming growth in recipients and cost to the state.


No fault divorce was introduced in 1980, with no court hearing required from 1990, further easing the pathway to separation. Compounding this development was a deep recession which saw unemployment rise to 11 percent in 1992. For purely pragmatic reasons decisions to separate were based on accessing two incomes instead of one. Jane Kelsey explains, “Perversely, because benefit eligibility reflected individual circumstances, and benefit rates and means testing were based on family income, many families were better off financially to separate.”[9] One parent would claim the DPB while the other claimed the unemployment benefit. (From 2004 it became possible for separating parents to split the custody of their children and both claim the DPB. Activists fought for this law change because the DPB had a higher payment rate and other more favourable conditions.)

As an aside, the practice of living apart for the purpose of collecting benefits continues to make measuring genuine sole parenthood fraught. In 2019 Auckland University of Technology researchers wrote: “We find that 70% of those who say they receive the domestic-purposes benefit also answer yes to the question of whether they have a partner – confirming that the sole-parent status derived from GUiNZ [Growing Up in New Zealand] is essentially different to those studies which rely on benefit status to infer partnership status."[10]

While separation and divorce were the most common causes of sole parenthood MSD acknowledges that, “A second contributing factor was an increase in the number and proportion of pregnant single women who did not marry or place their child for adoption.”[11] 

Throughout the 1990s DPB numbers exceeded 100,000.

In 1997 State Services Minister Jenny Shipley stated, “I want every child to be a chosen child".[12] Oral contraceptives became fully subsidised and over time, contraception has only become more accessible and more effective. 


Under Helen Clark’s Labour government (1999-2008) more single mothers moved into part-time work and receipt of the In Work Tax Credit. But the Global Financial Crisis (2008-11) saw a resumption of growth in DPB numbers after which they fell steadily again under John Key’s National government. The latter drop was substantially aided by the plummeting teenage birth rate (a significant feeder into long-term dependency ranks) but also more stringent work-testing. The carrot and stick approach contributed to a steadily increasing sole parent employment rate.

Then in 2013 the DPB quietly ceased to exist. Unfortunately, this was no more than a modernising of the benefit name to Sole Parent Support with some eligibility adjustments resulting in a transfer of some from DPB onto other benefits.

Post 2017

An upward trend resumed after Ardern took office in 2017 and began steadily increasing benefit payments and child tax credits. Currently there are around 75,000 on Sole Parent Support but over 100,000 sole parents across all main benefits. The number of children reliant on Sole Parent Support grew by 35,000 or thirty percent between September 2017 and September 2023.

Ardern also oversaw other controversial legislative changes which further undermined the responsibility of fathers. For example, single mothers on welfare are no longer financially penalised if they fail to name the father of their child(ren). 

When confronted with evidence that child poverty strongly correlates with family structure (sole parents are the poorest family type) Ardern was dismissive.[13] Like her recent Labour predecessors, MSD Minister Steve Maharey in particular, she refused to acknowledge the importance of nuclear families. 

Yet at some point in the not-so-distant-past, politicians and public servants recognised the concept of family as the fundamental social and economic unit and were extremely reluctant to undermine its formation and stability. How times have changed.

The Present and the Future

Right now, benefit-dependent single parents are on the rise again. They proliferate in emergency housing. Single parents have the lowest home ownership rates and the highest debt to income ratios. 

Police report that family violence is at record levels – single welfare dependent females are the most vulnerable to partner violence according to victim surveys.  The correlation between substantiated child abuse and appearing in the benefit system is incredibly strong. 

Child poverty now drives both a public and private industry of people who claim to be helping to alleviate poverty.  There are domestic child sponsorship programmes, KidsCan, Variety, etc. Forget famine-stricken African nations.

While benefits became more generous, easier to access and stay on under Ardern’s regime of “kindness”, any remaining obligations to the taxpayer became passe. There is no sign whatsoever that a resumption of deserving and non-deserving considerations will make a comeback. In fact, morality is ever more remote. Widows who become sole providers through no fault of their own are no longer differentiated from gang women who produce children as meal tickets. No distinction is made between reasons for ‘need’ and the taxpayer is expected to like it or lump it, despite the fact that fifty years of trying to solve social problems with cash payments has only made them worse.

American sociologist Charles Murray wrote about the identical welfare challenge in the US, "When reforms do occur, they will happen not because the stingy people have won, but because generous people have stopped kidding themselves.” [14]

[1] New Zealand Official Yearbook 1973, p77

[2] New Zealand Official Yearbook 1973, p91,92


[4] Rights of appeal, and benefits for all solo parents in new welfare act, Evening Post, p18, December 1, 1973

[5] New Territory, the Transformation of New Zealand 1984-92, Colin James

[6] Past Judgement, Needs and the State, Michael Belgrave, 2004, p32

[7] Reforming New Zealand Welfare, Michael Jones, 1998


[9] The New Zealand Experiment, P279, Jane Kelsey

[10] Protective factors of children and families at highest risk of adverse childhood experiences: An analysis of children and families in the Growing up in New Zealand data who “beat the odds” April 2019,

[11] Economic Wellbeing of Sole-Parent Families, November 2010, Families Commission



[14] Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980

Thursday, November 02, 2023

Infant deaths are not a fait accompli

STUFF claims a letter was dropped off anonymously to the organization detailing deaths of 57 children since Oranga Tamariki came into being in 2017. OT's chief social worker was interviewed by Jack Tame and did not deny the number. It is consistent with the oft-cited historical statistic that every five weeks a child in New Zealand dies from abuse.

There are other consistencies that accompany these deaths. They occur in state houses. The perpetrators are on benefits. The children are already known to Oranga Tamariki. In the latest case of toddler Ruthless-Empire the child was not in the care of OT but "on their books".

The victims are also disproportionately Maori. Apologists will assert this is because Maori are more likely to suffer from poverty and its causes, for instance, addiction and unemployment. These are hollow excuses for making the lives of totally vulnerable and dependent children miserable and painful. And too often, very short.

But why is this pattern so sickeningly predictable yet seemingly unavoidable?

Ground-breaking research from the Auckland University of Technology (led by Rhema Vaithianathan who is now assisting a number of US jurisdictions applying her work in a practical way) investigated the factors which are common to child abuse and neglect cases. CYF data was linked to multiple administrative records including from the benefit system. A major finding was:

"Of all children having a finding of maltreatment by age 5, 83% are seen on a benefit before age 2."

In other words the vast majority of substantiated abuse occurs in the population dependent on benefits. For the 2007 birth cohort, around three quarters of maltreatment findings by age two involved children of single parents, which provides a clue as to which particular benefit.

Turning to the rates of abuse, the incidence of maltreatment by age 2 was 10% for those children whose caregivers who had received a benefit for 80% or more of the past five years. In contrast, for those who had spent no time on a benefit, the finding dropped to 0.3 percent. The difference is massive. Expressed as a likelihood, the child in the habitually-benefit dependent home is 33 times more likely to be abused.

Unsurprisingly there are other factors that significantly influence findings. The percentages of children with a substantiated finding by age two with the following circumstances are:
  • Other children with a care and protection record in last five years (34.9%)
  • Mother or caregiver aged under 25 (53.5%)
  • One plus address changes recorded in benefit data in last year (26.1%)
  • Single parent (74.3%)
  • High deprivation neighbourhood deciles 8-10 (69%)*

The mother of Baby Ru had failed with an earlier child and had only assumed care of her latest when he was around eighteen months; OT was involved to some degree; she is young and moves around. As yet her benefit status is unknown.

So a number of the predictive factors were there.

Back to the research which also produced findings for Maori children separately. Across all of the variables the incidence of child maltreatment was elevated. Fifty nine percent of the those born in 2007 and abused by age two were Maori.

So to some degree just being Maori increases the risk. Most Maori children are safe and cherished but their risk of abuse or neglect is higher. Baby Ru also ticked that predictor box. And while abuse statistics are not mortality statistics, abuse is usually the precursor to the death of an infant.

The killing of children has gone on for a long time. The first inquiry in New Zealand occurred in the 1960s. So I didn't expect to find anything new or useful to say but reflecting on this little guy and the work of Rhema Vaithianathan, I wonder again why, as a society, we let it go on?

Due to ethical and stigmatisation concerns, in 2015 the National government eventually rejected the proposal to establish a tool that could predict the most at-risk newborns with a view to early intervention. MSD Minister Anne Tolley famously said, "Not on my watch."

Vaithianathan responded:
“We shouldn’t resile from the problems we face around maltreatment of children in New Zealand or from radical solutions like this that would allow resources to be targeted accurately. The social service sector in NZ needs a data-driven, evidence-based revolution. We are still tinkering at the edges and children are the losers.”

Eight years have passed. By omission we tacitly accept deaths will continue.

By commission, we continue to provide no-strings weekly cash payments to furnish lifestyles that are downright dangerous for very young children.

BUT ... the country has voted for change. It is not in the mood for more prevarication and excuse-making.

The incoming MSD Minister should get the good professor in his or her office next week and start talking.

* "Based on conservatively linked data. This is known to understate the proportions with CYF contact and findings of maltreatment."

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Welfare and the wasted opportunity

MSD released its annual report for 2022/23 yesterday. There is bad news. The average future years expected on a main benefit has increased yet again.

The crosses below indicate failed direction of trend which is explained with: "This KPI did not meet the direction because of less favourable economic forecasts (including higher unemployment rates), lower exit rates and changes in our client mix from those requiring support during the COVID-19 pandemic."

But hang on. The direction has been wrong since 2017. Here are the figures from last year’s annual report.

Apart from the first nation-wide lockdown the unemployment rate (depicted by the red line below) has generally decreased from 4.9 to 3.6 percent.

Against a backdrop of a mostly strong labour market MSD has overseen a substantial rise in the time people are staying dependent on welfare.

Unlike the previous National government, the Labour government did not set an official target of reducing dependency. Rather MSD measures their ‘success’ in building trust and confidence in clients; in timeliness of access and availability of assistance; in equity of outcomes for Maori; client satisfaction with family violence services; and in building awareness of and access to support.

This ‘kindness’ arose from recommendations by the Cindy Kiro-led Welfare Expert Advisory Group convened by the incoming Ardern government of 2017. MSD would counter criticism claiming that they have generally met their KPIs built around these measures.

But what does the funder of MSD (the productive taxpayer) actually want to see?

Not numbers like these:

What taxpayers want (those of us who voted for change anyway) is a return to welfare for the genuinely needy. For those who have suffered misfortune through no fault of their own and cannot be self-sustaining.

Labour squandered a rare opportunity to significantly reduce welfare dependency. While the borders were closed thousands could have taken up the employment opportunities presented. Instead, numbers on welfare stagnated and the time spent there only got longer.

It is absolutely critical for the new government to turn this around. With an ageing population and declining birth rate (also faced by the other countries we compete with), labour force shortages will continue.

The new government doesn’t need to cut benefits. They just need to require anyone who can work to take the job on offer.

In the long run that would be the far kinder option for all parties concerned.