Changing social norms could take generations

By Simon Collins

Kelly Heremaia will have to try for jobs once Hikiannaturns 6. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Kelly Heremaia will have to try for jobs once Hikiannaturns 6. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Papakura is likely to be a frontline target in the Government's drive to get sole parents back to work - but changing its social norms may take generations.

The South Auckland district has the country's second-highest share of its working-aged population on the domestic purposes benefit (10 per cent), and by far the highest share of its Maori population - 27.9 per cent or, since the vast majority of sole parents are women, roughly one out of every two Maori women of working age.

Unlike the country's "DPB capital" of Kawerau, where there are simply no jobs available, Papakura is part of the wider Auckland region where the Seek website listed 6783 job vacancies yesterday.

Cabinet papers released when Social Development Minister Paula Bennett introduced legislation to make sole parents with no children under age 6 look for work from the end of next month show that Work and Income plans to start with 4500 of the 40,000 eligible sole parents.

"Work and Income will work with a mix of sole parents on DPB within this 4500: a mix of work-ready parents with few, if any, barriers to entering work and those with more complex needs," Ms Bennett said in the papers.

"Initially the focus will be on the more work-ready sole parents, with this focus shifting gradually over time. I propose that we focus on former teen parents as the first 'complex' group in this mix."

In Papakura, that means the pressure is likely to go first on the 482 of the district's 2706 DPB beneficiaries who have been on benefits for less than a year, a smaller proportion than the national average of 23 per cent.

But the challenge will be much greater when officials reach the district's 1218 DPB recipients - a higher share than the national average - who have been on benefits for more than four years.

Papakura Marae whanau advocate Debbie Wihongi said schools opening in the district's new housing areas had "just about all sole parents".

"Their parents are on benefits as well. It's a cycle," she said.

"The men are not supporting them. They are around, they are all in a rut ... Sometimes it's just lack of opportunities for other choices, a sense of this is the norm.

"Parenting has changed. I remember going into a school to do whanaungatanga [family relationships].

"A lot of them had half-brothers and half-sisters, there weren't many in mum-dad-and-three-kids families. I didn't realise how the family structure had changed."

Kelly Heremaia, a 28-year-old mother of four who has been on the DPB since taking her sons back from their grandparents three years ago, said her own parents' breakup when she was 16 contributed to her life choices.

"Wrong choice of men," she said in explanation. "My partner has issues he's dealing with himself. We're not together."

She has just completed a real estate course and could not get any help for the course fees from Work and Income.

Connie Raiwhara, who runs the Pikorua community house where Ms Heremaia attends a sewing class, said many sole parents had no qualifications and would not give up the benefit for a minimum-wage job.

A sole parent with three young children paying the $332 average rent for a three-bedroom house in Papakura would get $206 in family support and $165 in accommodation supplement on top of the $278 DPB, a total of $649 a week.

"A lot of our solo parents get well in the $700s. They are not going to go from $700 to $400," Ms Raiwhara said.

"Even if you're in a fulltime job on $400-$500 a week [after tax], childcare is $240 a week. You're working to pay for someone else to look after your child.

"Maybe they should put the wages up and maybe that would give people the incentive to go back to work."

Ms Raiwhara is part of a "wraparound" service for local families sponsored by Housing New Zealand, the police and the district council, but she is unpaid.

She believes sole parents need more "emotional support", not just cash.

"If you're a young mother and you go and sign up on a solo benefit, you should have programmes to do from the beginning, like parenting courses and budgeting," she said.

"Give them something they can learn while they get the benefit so when the children turn 6 they are ready to go back to work."

- NZ Herald

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