Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni: Navigating work as a solo parent

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

It's spring, and the lambs are frolicking in Cornwell Park. That's a nice picture, but what about this one, also occasioned by September 1: more primary, intermediate and high school aged children left to amuse themselves after the school bell has rung the final time for the day.

The Welfare Minister and her advisers, spurred on by the working party behind welfare reform, have successfully pushed to have all solo parents whose children have turned six return to the workforce, albeit in a part time capacity, or else suffer a cut to their benefits.

The question we now need to ask (belatedly) is this: will kids of solo parents be afforded a better standard of living with a working parent - reducing poverty being one of the aims of the legislation - or will measures of truancy and other crimes committed by bored, unsupervised kids rise as a result (as has happened in the US where these reforms have been tried?)

It seems, yet again, eminently sensible to try and stop people benefit-mooching. No one wants to see people languishing on benefits forever; most people do actually want to work, if only to provide their children more security than a fairly modest benefit can provide.

But you just know that in New Zealand that change will be effected the cheapest way possible. In other words, just like in Australia, the policy will be a blunt instrument to force people off the DPB without ensuring they have their ducks in a row: access to proper childcare, adequate qualifications for the workforce of today, and most of all, of course, actual jobs to go into.

Australian Researcher Eve Bodsworth was on National Radio this week to discuss the results of this policy which came into force across the ditch in 2006.

There, an even bigger stick was used to get people back to work: once kids turned eight, parenting payments disappeared completely if 30 hours a fortnight of work wasn't found and solo parents who weren't looking hard enough for work became normal beneficiaries on much lower incomes.

Following up on the solo parents who were affected by these changes, Bodsworth found that many parents had to resort to less than adequate childcare to cover their parenting requirements. They also did things like drop kids off at school very early, unsupervised, and leave them rattling around their homes after school as parents finished shifts.

Worst of all was the finding that few of the parents were better off financially once costs of getting to work, dressing properly, and other associated expenses, were factored in. The majority still wanted to work, but found trying to balance their home and work lives difficult, especially where employers couldn't - or wouldn't - be flexible.

One would hope that in New Zealand the complexity of different situations is taken into account; one would think that we might have looked at what happened in Australia and go: a bit of money injected up front here would see better daycare facilities available where we know lots of solo parents will be back in the workforce.

What about incentives for local employers (such as those in Kawerau, or Papakura where large numbers of solo mums are known to exist) to hire part-time workers? What about extra funding to schools to start up before and after-school care?

What's the bet none of that has been even thought about? In fact, our working group is looking at lowering the age at which the youngest should be before solo mum or dad needs to return to the workplace.

You'd have to say it's highly possible that shovelling a solo parent back into a poorly paid, inflexible job that leaves their children without proper supervision is a typical New Zealand practise of saving a few beans now to create a huge mountain of trouble later on.

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Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

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