Nine out of 10 gang members have received welfare payments over the past 20 years, and more than a quarter of them have abused or neglected their children.

Gang families are also costing social services about $35 million a year, according to alarming figures, from a new Ministry of Social Development report.

The figures are the impetus behind a range of new measures, announced by the Government, aimed at encouraging partners and children of gang members into independent, violence-free lives.

It is investing in two pilot programmes in the Bay of Plenty and the East Coast, which will provide tailored support services for wives and young people linked to gangs.


This includes youth counselling, job and education support and healthcare, at a cost of $1.1 million for the two experimental programmes.

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley says the Government aims to break inter-generational gang involvement and cut related social costs - estimated at $714 million since 1993. Another part of the anti-gangs policy is a dedicated intelligence centre run out of police national headquarters.

Police Minister Judith Collins says the centre is now operational and is providing information which has disrupted illegal activity and had identified members and associates who want to escape gang life.

The measures have been tentatively supported in Parliament, though some MPs believe they treat all families of gang members as criminals.

Given the social cost associated with gang culture in New Zealand, it is pleasing to see a wider approach is being taken. However, the fact just $1.1 million has been allocated for the two pilot programmes suggests their impact may be limited.

In my view, combative policies, such as gang patch bans, have done little to reduce the influence of gang culture in New Zealand. If progress is to be made, a multi-agency approach, such as the one put forward this week, is needed.

There will always be people who, for whatever reason are drawn to an outlaw lifestyle, for others though gang association is part of their upbringing. The societal issues that lead people towards gang membership need to be addressed.

As noted by Green Party police spokesman David Clendon, gangs thrived in poor, uneducated communities which have few employment choices.

He says investment in education, rebuilding families and job support is the right approach.

Mr Clendon says the latest programmes miss a crucial part of the problem.

"We also need to stop putting so many young men in prison, where inevitably they become recruited by the gangs, particularly the short sentence inmates going into our prisons," he says.

Te Tuinga Whanau Support Services Trust social services director Tommy Wilson touched on a similar point when discussing why so many Maori men were ending up in prison in ever-increasing numbers in a recent column published in this newspaper. He argued that education is the best way to reverse the trend.

"For me it is about pouring every resource available into teaching these men how to read, preferably way back before they are 9, and if we miss them, then catch them when they are 'at risk youth', and for the third strike, catch them inside before they come out and fall through the illiterate cracks again."

I agree.

Perhaps, the main reason that drives people towards gangs is a lack of other options. And what an uncertain life it must be. Gang members live on the fringe of society and because many choose to live outside the law, they live with the constant threat of being locked up. The temptation to move toward a more secure future for themselves and their families must be strong - some support in taking the step away from gang membership might go a long way.

The new initiatives are a step in the right direction but, in my view, more resources and an even wider approach are needed to truly address the country's gang problem.