'We have one gang in our town, the Mongrel Mob, ' said a com' />

As a Government-ordered review of welfare dependence is about to be released, social issues reporter Simon Collins begins a three-part series investigating why numbers on the DPB are so high

A gang rules the bedroom in many of the homes in New Zealand's DPB capital - Kawerau.

"We have one gang in our town, the Mongrel Mob," said a community leader who asked not to be named for fear of the Mob.

"Every Mongrel Mob man creates a line - that is the number of children they can produce. So they will have a couple of girlfriends and they might have a wife, and they will have mistresses, and they will be in on-and-off relationships," he said.

"When you are born and raised with that mentality, and we have second and third generations raised like that in this town, what that turns out is sole parents."

The Bay of Plenty timber town of just under 7000 people had 501 sole parents on the domestic purposes benefit (DPB) at the end of June, the highest share of the 18-to-64 age group of any district in the country.

Sole parents made up almost half (47 per cent) of all its families with children at the last Census, compared with a national average of 30 per cent.

The town also had the country's lowest Census median income, the highest share of adults with no formal educational qualifications, the highest share of children under 15 and the highest unemployment.

Its share of working-age adults on the unemployment benefit in June this year was second only to Wairoa's.

Its many vacant shops, and the piles of empty beer cans outside the units in a former timber workers' camp known as the Village, testify to the challenge the Government faces in implementing a law that will make all sole parents without children under 6 look for part-time work from the end of next month.

Pastor Paul Heke, whose House of Hope church runs a foodbank in the Village, said the town's big timber and paper mills employed 4000 people when he moved there in 1990. Today they employ fewer than 1100.

A scaffolding business set up by the Mongrel Mob, which employed up to 70 people at its peak, was also closed when the Weekend Herald visited. Manager Des Ngaheu refused to be interviewed.

"There's not a lot to offer," said a 19-year-old mother in Kawerau College's teen parent unit. "If there were jobs kids wouldn't be hanging round doing nothing."

"We have sex because there's nothing else to do," said another mother, aged 20.

"We are breeders," said a pregnant Maraia Enoka, 15.

Former mill worker turned social worker Cliff Mura said most of the mill jobs disappeared when the former Tasman Pulp and Paper contracted out its maintenance work in the 1990s. Most of the well-paid contractors now commute to the mill from more pleasant coastal towns, and the jobs left for Kawerau residents are low-paid.

"I did two days' work at the mill for one of the engineering companies here. Their hourly rate was $13 an hour, 25c more than the minimum wage."

A 34-year-old health worker, Lisa Ranapia, who has lived in Kawerau since she was 7, said the gang influence had grown as well-paid jobs shrank.

"Back then it was not okay for your children to be wearing those colours. Now I have seen 6-month-old babies wearing patches."

Kevan McConnell of Manna Support Services said the mill had lost its "social conscience" and the town faced third-generation unemployment.

"The capacity to sustain healthy relationships in economically and socially depressed areas has to be low. Your goal is to make sure the power bill is paid and you pay your rent and feed and clothe your children ... So people are looking to get through the week and there is not a high level of head space for planning, so I think pregnancies are a product of that."

Mayor Malcolm Campbell is pinning his hopes for the town's revival on a new industrial subdivision being developed with Maori landowners, the Putauaki Trust, and recent land claim settlements with both local iwi, Tuwharetoa Ki Kawerau and Ngati Awa.

"Those two iwi are going to be big players in our development," he said. "They are going to be targeting a lot of the people on the DPB."