Donna Wynd: Make villains of sole mothers at children's peril

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Donna Wynd. Photo / Supplied
Donna Wynd. Photo / Supplied

Lindsay Mitchell's recent column linking sole parenthood with child abuse requires a response from those who may see things in a different light.

I am a social researcher and have been for some years. During that time I have talked to dozens of sole parents, teachers and social and community workers.

Some parents work long, difficult hours to provide for their children. And some have children who require constant care.

In my experience, parents always put the interests of their children first and I have yet to meet a parent who does not want the best for his or her children. I have never, ever talked to a parent who has contemplated having more children because the monetary gains outweigh the risks and responsibilities.

It is therefore discouraging to read claims that young women have babies to rort the taxpayer of his or her hard-earned cash and that these babies are neglected and abused by indifferent parents, and that the cause of this is welfare.

This sets up an easily identifiable villain (sole mothers), a social problem that seems intractable and a simple policy solution (get rid of welfare) to deal with them.

This proposition serves two purposes and is ultimately dangerous for children. Its first purpose is to put sole-parent beneficiaries and child abusers "out there".

That is, they are portrayed as a group removed from the rest of society. This tactic has proved remarkably successful, as evidenced by the fact that people talk about sole parents and beneficiaries in terms that would be deemed utterly unacceptable for any other social group.

This overlooks the fact that the welfare system is there to assist people in the event that something unforeseen happens to them or their families. Unexpected illness or accident, the death of a spouse, natural disasters or redundancy can happen to anyone.

Also overlooked is the role of domestic violence in relationship breakups. It is in all of our interests that there is a safety net to help people through these events.

It is especially important when there are children whose wellbeing can be compromised by the lack of income that often accompanies personal tragedies.

The second purpose of the above proposition is that people seldom question whether what they have been told is supported by evidence.

What, then, do we know about sole parents? There are about 160,000 sole-parent households in New Zealand. About 113,000 of these are on a benefit. The number of sole parent beneficiaries has increased markedly since the onset of the recession in late 2008.

This is as expected, as sole-parent employment is highly sensitive to labour market conditions. Despite this, more than 40,000 sole parents, or more than a quarter of the total, are not on a benefit. Clearly there is little economic gain in being on a benefit for a significant proportion of sole parents. This is supported by data that shows consistently that on almost every measure, sole-parent beneficiary households are the most impoverished.

The benefit data shows that most sole parents have children aged under 5, and are off a benefit within four years. Those who stay on benefits for longer periods tend to be older, or much younger.

There has been little research on this but discussions with social workers suggest that some parents are looking after older children who have been de-institutionalised. These older children often have high needs and require constant care.

There is solid research showing that mothers who go on to a benefit when they are very young are more likely to stay on a benefit for a long period.

The reasons for this are complex - they may have come from disrupted families, they often have low educational attainment or, in rare instances, may simply have been a bit rebellious. But this group is a small minority of sole parents.

One effect of bundling sole parenthood and child abuse is that it makes invisible the abuse that occurs elsewhere in society. The most recent well-publicised case involved a child living with both of her parents - Nia Glassie's mother was working long, unsociable hours.

Cutting welfare to sole parents would not have made any difference in either of these cases. Abuse and neglect of children cuts across income, class and ethnicity. Protecting children means acknowledging this.

New Zealand's high rates of teen pregnancies and child abuse are mirrored across the developed world in societies such as New Zealand that are characterised by high levels of socio-economic inequality.

The causal pathways are unclear but the fact they happen across such a wide variety of countries suggests they are not a sole-parent problem or a Maori problem, or even a problem of easy access to welfare.

In the United States, the states with the highest rates of teen pregnancies are also those with the highest child-poverty rates, the greatest income inequality and most stringent access to public assistance - particularly Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida.

Sadly, inequality and poverty do not lend themselves to simplistic policy responses. Dealing effectively with them takes time and political courage. The domestic purposes benefit was introduced so sole parents could raise their children with a measure of financial security.

In today's labour market, financial security is more elusive than ever.

Abolishing the DPB, or just making it difficult to get, will not prevent a single unwanted pregnancy and it will not stop children suffering at the hands of their caregivers.

Not so many years ago, mothers with no support left their babies on the steps of churches and workhouses.

We need to think about whether we want to provide for families as a matter of the public good or return to the much more brutal days of yore.

- Donna Wynd of Otahuhu is a researcher for the Child Poverty Action Group, although her opinions here are not necessarily those of the group.

- NZ Herald

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