Fran O'Sullivan: Look out for the kids when you swing that axe, Mr Key

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John Key is primed to take an axe to welfare when he fronts his party faithful in Wellington tomorrow.

As an election plank it will go down well with hardline National Party members, who believe beneficiaries should stand on their own feet.

News reports suggest Key's Beehive team has been looking at where it can trim the fat from a cash-strapped Government budget which is supporting far too many solo parents and sickness and invalid beneficiaries.

New Zealand should hope Key shows some common sense - tempered with heart - when he goes about trying to reduce from 328,000 the number of New Zealanders who fall into those particular camps.

The latest labour force survey shows the unemployment rate is still flat-lining at 6.5 per cent of the workforce. The number of jobs has been growing in Auckland, but the earthquakes have pushed up unemployment in Christchurch.

The Rugby World Cup and the rebuilding of Christchurch will boost confidence, but there's no guarantee that many of the resultant jobs will match beneficiaries' work skills.

Nor is there any guarantee that resurgent economic growth will provide enough opportunities for the most urgent problem facing New Zealand - the large number of young jobless Kiwis.

In New Zealand, youth nihilism has frequently turned inwards, as evidenced by the soaring suicide rate. But many members of Britain's lost generation were at the forefront of the wave of riots that wreaked so much damage there this week.

If Key's announcements do not contain measures to help the jobless young, they should be written off as an "epic fail".

These are the people who really need the dignity of work and the self-respect that comes from earning a pay cheque and having a place in society.

Action is particularly important because it is by no means certain that the international economy will recover quickly enough to spur sufficient domestic growth in the short-term to provide enough young men and women with satisfying jobs.

The other major worry is the future of solo parents on the DPB and their children.

News reports suggest Key hasn't ruled out the working group proposal to get solo parents who are on the DPB to take up part-time work when their child turns 3. The intention is to breed self-reliance and break the cycle of dependency.

Key has made a great deal out of the self-reliance he learned at his mother's knee. We all know his story. His Jewish mother brought up her three children in a state house in Christchurch.

Ruth Lazar was made of gritty stuff. She went back to work to make a living for her family after her alcoholic husband died.

But Key's experience was way outside the norm, even for the 1960s.

As a widow, his mother was "deserving" of a benefit to bring up her children. Anyone who went it alone without that status at a time when a married woman's place was still seen to be "in the home" faced considerable opposition.

My own mother also took sole charge of our family when I was 9.

She essentially kicked my charming but occasionally feckless father out. She had become heartily tired of him wasting too much of his salary at the TAB and the RSA.

So, when Dad was offered a better public service job in Wellington, Mum decided we would stay put.

Like Ruth Lazar, she was of an independent stripe, too proud to throw herself on the state's meagre mercies.

But we also had many advantages. Mum owned her house outright - it had been bequeathed to her by her father, who had been a farmer before moving to town.

She made our clothes, took in sewing for relatives and female friends, covered most of our quarter-acre plot with a vegetable garden and was back in paid employment at a local lawyer's office before I was 10.

But the introduction of the DPB has changed the game. Numbers have flourished as a result of the mentality that says "it's better for the children" to split rather than stick in loveless or difficult marriages.

But times have also changed.

At the time my mother - and Key's - took charge of their families, jobs were plentiful. It was also not the norm for both parents to work, so there were also plenty of stay-at-home mums happy to earn some extra dollars by caring for other people's children.

If solo mothers are forced back to work please ensure after-school care is available so they can contribute safe in the knowledge that their children are being cared for.

Otherwise we simply embed the kinds of pervasive inequalities that have led to too many of Britain's youth being ostracised from society.

- NZ Herald

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Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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