Sole parents living on welfare will soon have to seek paid work or attend a training course. Simon Collins talks to a group of mothers about the personal and financial stresses they will face

Lost in the crowd of more than 3000 applicants for 150 jobs at a new Manukau supermarket this year were three volunteers from a group called Parents of Schools in Manurewa.

Christine Clausen, a mother of seven children aged from 18 to 7; Raewyn Patuwai, a mother of three aged 15 to 7; and Trisha, who has bought up five aged 18 to 10 - are all solo parents on the domestic purposes benefit (DPB) who will have to look for paid work from the end of next month under a bill reported back to Parliament this week.

Clausen says Work and Income officials have already told her that her benefit will be halved unless she looks for work or at least goes on a course that may lead to work.

"They said, 'you need to take a course'," she says. "I said, 'no, I'm not taking out no student loan'. Every job you apply for, whether it's in the paper or even at temp agencies like Kelly Services, you have to have two years' experience. Because I've never worked, even though I do voluntary work here, it's not classed as a job.

"I'm [with] Housing NZ so [my] rent would go to the highest rate - the market rate is about $450 a week. So [I'd] be working to pay rent. It's not worth it."

And then there's the children: "They expect the 18-year-old to look after the 7-year-old till I get home. But they've got that rapist still hanging around 'Rewa. They want us to go to work - what about our kids' safety?"

Patuwai is in the same boat. She has had a few short-lived bits of work since she went on the DPB a decade ago, but she can't quote her work experience to any potential employer because it was all "under the table".

"That's what a lot of people have to do - work under the table to make ends meet," says Angela Opai, who co-ordinates Parents of Schools in Manurewa, otherwise known as "PoSM".

Trisha, the third PoSM volunteer in the supermarket queue, has been on and off the benefit for 10 years but left her last job five years ago because her children were constantly getting illnesses caused by living in a cold, damp house.

"Who's going to take care of them if I'm at work?" she asked.

The PoSM parents are not unusual. A quarter of all New Zealand children under 15 live with only one parent - more than in any developed country except the United States and Estonia. More than two out of five Maori children live with single parents.

Since the DPB was created in 1973, sole-parent families have increased from below 10 per cent of all families with dependent children to 29 per cent.

Almost three-quarters of them are on the benefit.

The DPB now costs $1.75 billion a year, an average of $10 a week from every individual taxpayer - a major reason why the Government is not just tightening the rules next month but has also set up a working group, which is publishing an issues paper next week on other options for reducing welfare dependence.

These trends raise at least three other reasons for concern, besides cost.

First, most sole parents are poor. Last year 46 per cent of all children in sole-parent families lived in poverty (below 60 per cent of median income after housing costs), compared with only 14 per cent of children in two-parent families.

"The DPB is really not a living wage for a family. If you or I tried to live on it we'd be living a very different lifestyle," says Louise Belcher of Papakura's Kelvin Rd Whanau Centre.

Second, although of course bad relationships are stressful, so is parenting alone. A batch of Social Development Ministry studies published last week found that 43 per cent of sole parents suffered diagnosable mental disorders in the past year, compared with 19 per cent of partnered parents. The most common disorder for both groups was anxiety.

A third of the sole parents' excess mental illness was associated with simply not having another adult in the house. Another third was linked to their poverty.

And thirdly, there are the effects on children. This is a hotly contested issue and a recent OECD review of studies across all developed countries found no consensus on whether children raised by one parent were any worse off than those raised by two parents.

A famous local study tracking 1265 children born in Christchurch in 1977 found those who grew up with sole parents did worse than those from two-parent families by the age of 25 on educational qualifications, anxiety, crime and welfare dependence.

But the gap was entirely explained by other differences between the two groups such as the mothers' ages, the parents' education and criminal records and use of drugs and alcohol, poverty, physical punishment and sexual abuse.

"Single parenthood was largely a marker for an underlying series of social, educational and familial disadvantages," the researchers concluded.

However, research on the slightly distinct issue of the absence of fathers is clearer. In the Christchurch study, girls whose fathers left in the child's first five years were eight times more likely to get pregnant before age 18 than girls whose fathers stayed for their full childhood - and were still three times as likely to get pregnant even after adjusting for other factors.

The effects on boys are more anecdotal. Kawerau pastor Paul Heke, a former prison chaplain, says 90 per cent of the prisoners he met had no relationship with their fathers.

Marion Spicer of Iosis Family Solutions, a Baptist Church agency that helps many sole parents in Manurewa, is not the only person asking: how did we get it so wrong?

"When the DPB was started it was not started so that people could turn it into a career choice," she says. "It was started because something terrible had happened to a family, the father had died or left. Now we are not even getting people to form relationships. Now that second generation is coming along and learning from what they see. It has become normal."

A 2008 Families Commission report traces the growth of sole parenting back to the 1960s, when prosperity, full employment and new technologies such as the contraceptive pill fuelled a rebellion across the developed world against social restrictions that kept women, young people, racial and other minorities in subservient positions.

Women felt able, and were encouraged by labour-hungry employers, to go back to paid work after having children. The proportion of NZ women aged 15 or over in paid work doubled from 29 per cent in 1951 to 58 per cent today, while men in paid work fell from 90 per cent to 70 per cent as the population aged.

Paid work, in turn, made it possible to leave abusive or unhappy marriages. The DPB gave full-time mothers the same option.

For parents on benefits or low incomes, the tax and benefit system actually created a financial incentive to separate. Economist Patrick Nolan calculated in 2008 that a mother earning $240 a week and an unemployed father would be $132 a week better off apart, even allowing for the extra costs of two households, because of the extra welfare top-ups the mother could get if she lived alone with the children.

Social researchers Paul Callister and David Rea, in a new draft paper, trace the other side of the equation - a worrying minority of mid-life men aged 30 to 44 missing out on both work and marriage. Mid-life men outside the labour force rose from 2 per cent to 11 per cent in the 30 years to 2006, and those living without partners rose in the past 20 years from 19 per cent to 33 per cent.

Callister and Rea note that both work and marriage have declined most for men without educational qualifications, as low-skilled male factory work has been automated or gone overseas. Deregulated labour markets have led to growing casualisation of remaining unskilled work, with a widening gap between the wages of unskilled workers and educated professionals.

"A decline in the 'marriageability' of men who have poor labour market prospects may lead to a significant proportion of them living alone or in some other form of non-family arrangement," they write.

The likely consequences of marginalised men turning to drugs, alcohol and crime can only be guessed at. The Corrections Department told Callister and Rea that 30 per cent of all Maori men now in their 20s, and 10 per cent of same-aged non-Maori men, have served at least one sentence administered by the department.

The Government's initial response to all this is to make sole parents look for work for at least 15 hours a week when their youngest child turns 6. Its Social Assistance (Future Focus) Bill, now renamed the Social Assistance (New Work Tests, Incentives and Obligations) Amendment Bill, takes effect on September 27.

Its longer-term response is in the hands of a review group headed by economist Paula Rebstock, who has flagged the need to give sole parents work-related training to help them into work. The group is also looking at Bill Clinton's reforms in the United States, which cut off welfare for sole parents after a two-year spell or five years in a lifetime, reducing beneficiaries from five million to two million.

But the 71 groups that have made submissions on the Future Focus Bill - all but four opposed to it - raise some of the same objections as the PoSM mothers.

"The lack of suitable work available during school hours makes this policy futile, especially during a recession," said the Council of Christian Social Services.

More importantly, the bill does not tackle the underlying problem of the breakdown of two-parent families.

Perhaps there's no point in trying. Child Poverty Action Group economist Susan St John says the problem is not sole parenthood but poverty, which could be eased by paying the $60 weekly in-work tax credit to all families with children, not just those in full-time work.

"If the implication is that it's solved by going back to an old-fashioned nuclear family where people are forced to stay together, that's not going to wear," she says.

St John and Unitec's Keith Rankin have also proposed reforming the welfare system to pay benefits based on individual rather than family income - which could be one way to get rid of the incentive to separate in the current system. The 1988 Royal Commission on Social Policy recommended a similar state payment for unpaid work, including caring work done by both single and partnered parents. France, Finland and Austria all pay caregiving allowances to most parents of young children - but only for a child's first two or three years.

Following Callister and Rea's analysis, perhaps the best way to foster two-parent families would be to raise the skills of unskilled men and women who are now shut out of well-paid jobs.

That is obviously a long-term project which needs to engage children and their parents in education from preschool programmes such as "Hippy", which is run from the Papakura Whanau Centre among other places, and keep them engaged through schooling into vocational training.

Kawerau Central School principal Kahu Walker attracted an astonishing 70 per cent of the parents at his decile 1 school - where more than 80 per cent of the families are on welfare - when he offered after-school classes for parents who wanted to help their children with their maths.

"Education now is all about relationships," he says.

Papakura Marae manager Tony Kake advocates more support for apprenticeships and programmes such as Pu Ora Matatini, which aims to recruit 100 South Auckland Maori off welfare benefits and train them as nurses by 2015.

He proposes "making employment legislation more conducive to the circumstances of women and their young children. My wife says she'd go back to work if she could get the [school] holidays off."

Aric Sigman, a visiting psychologist who spoke at a Family First forum yesterday, says fathers, too, need to give more priority to their families and less to their work.

"Parents have to actually face that trade-off, and make a financial sacrifice, if necessary, for a number of years, for the benefits of that time with [their] child."

For the Social Development Ministry studies, see