Tough welfare reforms now going through Parliament may deter some women from seeing the sole parent benefit as a viable lifestyle - but at the risk of long-term harm to their children. Social issues reporter Simon Collins reports

Two-year-old Antonio picked up his plastic toy and threw it hard against the glass door.

When his mother kept talking to the reporter, he picked up another toy and threw it against the wall.

You couldn't blame him. It was late afternoon, his kohanga recently stopped giving the children afternoon naps, and the reporter was monopolising Mum's attention.


On top of that, his 5-year-old cousin Zane, whose mum is in prison, had just moved into the household a week before and may have helped bring on Antonio's throwing frenzy.

"He's never done that before," said his mum, Casey McCarry, 27.

But the pale little boy has not had an easy life. McCarry says his father is "a really cool dad to Antonio" but was "abusive and violent towards me". He is now in jail for breaching a protection order McCarry took out against him.

Housing NZ gave her a new house three years ago, but Auckland's southern motorway is just over the back fence.

"It's quite fumy here, it's not good for us to live here. I think that's why he has always got sick," she says.

Now she is pregnant again to a man she met only once.

"It was just a silly thing one night, I got drunk one night in town," she says. "I was alone by myself that weekend, Antonio had gone to his family. I decided to go into Auckland City with friends and they showed me a whole life that I didn't know."

She considered an abortion but rejected it: "It's a Maori belief, it's a gift from God."


McCarry's story is typical of the gritty realities of life for many of the 4800 sole parents every year who have another baby while on the domestic purposes benefit (DPB).

Anyone on a benefit who falls pregnant after October 1 will be subject to one of the toughest rules in the National Government's new welfare reforms - a provision to "stop the clock" on work obligations for only one year after a new baby is born.

The reforms, now passing through their final stages in Parliament, will make all sole parents look for part-time work when their youngest previous child, born before they went on the benefit, turns 5.

For McCarry, if the new law had been in place already, that would be when Antonio turns 5 in September 2014, and her new baby will be just 21 months old.

"That's too soon," she says.

The rationale

New Zealand has among the world's highest rates of sole parenthood, especially among low-income groups for whom the DPB may seem a viable lifestyle option. In the 2006 census, 25 per cent of all New Zealand children and 43 per cent of Maori children lived in sole parent families, compared with an OECD average of 16 per cent.

Otara administrator Delaney Papua, who turns 20 next month and is expecting her first baby in November, says going on the benefit seems to be just what you do when you get pregnant.

"All the people that I know that have kids go on it, so I kind of just assumed that you have to be on that," she says.

The babies' fathers often have no role in the families they help create, giving them no anchor in society. Papua doesn't expect her baby's father to support her.

"He's sending mixed messages, he says one thing and then another. I wouldn't know," she says. "I'd like to have him in the picture - maybe not together as a couple, seeing as we butt heads a lot, but being some sort of support with the baby.

"I don't know any friends that are being supported by their partner. A lot of them are in a relationship, but it will be on and off again, especially after having a child. He'd be working, or he'd lose his job, they're together, they're not together."

A growing minority of women who go on the DPB keep on having more children and receiving more money while on the benefit. The numbers of babies born to women already on the DPB have trended upwards from 3300 in 1997 to 4800 in 2010, when they made up 7.5 per cent of all babies born in New Zealand that year.

The Government says 29 per cent of women on the DPB last November had included new babies in their existing benefits at least once since 1993. Three-fifths (59 per cent) of the women who had new babies on the DPB last year were Maori, although Maori made up only 22 per cent of all women who gave birth in the year to March.

Melanie Hoto, 33, worked in a lunch bar on the North Shore and then at a fish market in Tauranga but eventually ended up on the DPB.

"I came back to Auckland and lost interest [in work]. It was so hard trying to find work. I even applied to work here at McDonald's," she says over a hot chocolate at McDonald's in Glen Innes.

"In the end I fell pregnant with my daughter and I thought, 'I get a good amount of money on the benefit, why bother working?"'

Her partner "was never in the picture".

"It was a one-night stand," she says. "He's in jail now for robbing a shop. He was into drugs - a lot of people are into it, it's easy cash."

She realised later that the benefit was hardly enough to live on and got work in restaurants and rest homes while her daughter, now 6, was at kohanga and then kindergarten. But each job ended, for various reasons, and she found herself back on the benefit.

She became pregnant again recently near the end of a two-year relationship that she left because her partner was obsessively controlling. She says she would not have let herself fall pregnant if the new law had been in force.

"I would have been more cautious about what I do in that department. I just think it's not fair [to have a] child if you're not going to be there."

Another woman, Renee, became pregnant with a flatmate while on the benefit when her first two children were 8 and 5, and says it "was never a boyfriend/girlfriend thing". She also thinks the new law is "fair".

"If the law had been in place, I just would have been probably more cautious," she says.

At another McDonald's recently, she overheard two young mothers with babies talking about how they were trying to get pregnant again.

"I'm loving this benefit shit," one said. "I'm going to have another baby, I'll keep having them, it's free money."

The risks

The new law may finally stop this kind of thinking. But the risk is that it will also cause unintended harm to the majority of women who end up on the DPB through no fault of their own.

North Shore mother Rebecca, a 30-year-old former company administrator, left her husband and went on the DPB two weeks after her baby daughter was born because the baby was in danger.

"I ended up having a protection order," she says. "I was left with a lot of debt and a 2-week-old baby. I had a prolapsed disc in my back. It was a real struggle, it was really hard."

Her husband went overseas, but came back two years later and "made all these noises about being different".

"We ended up getting together and here is a baby, with my technical husband," Rebecca says.

Her new baby, conceived on the benefit, is due on Monday.

"Since then, legally, things have gone pear-shaped. I would love more than anything for us to have a happy, together family, but we don't."

If the new law had been in force, she says, "I would have freaked out. My marriage has broken down, I'm trying to cope with having a baby and raising children by myself," she says.

"Trying to make ends meet is hard enough anyway, without having to put them into childcare while you go off to work. It's really quite a daunting prospect."

Rebecca started a psychology degree before having her first child and wants to go back to qualify as a psychologist. But she also wants to be there for her children, for at least their first two years.

"The first two years are really important to build a foundation and have that one-on-one time," she says.

Kristina Paterson, a West Auckland solo mother and parent coach who works mainly with other solo mums in a Christian charity called Mothers' Helpers, says most solo mothers who go on the benefit do so because their children need them.

"There is actually acknowledged research on a child's brain that attachment is made during their first two years of life, therefore they need to have continuity of care from someone who cares about them on a one-to-one basis," she says.

"When attachment is interrupted it can lead to a whole heap of problems later in life - anything from language difficulties to delinquency to aggression in children."

The Government's welfare working group, chaired by economist Paula Rebstock, argued last year that solo mothers should not be exempt from what is increasingly a social norm for mothers to go back to work early.

In 2010, 50 per cent of partnered mothers with children under 3 worked at least part-time. So did 19 per cent of solo mothers with children in the same age bracket.

But Paterson says every mother should be free to make that decision based on the needs of her particular children, her own needs, and the quality and cost of available childcare.

Mothers with trusted partners or parents available to look after the children are in quite a different position from those with no close family at hand.

"When they are forced to do it and it's not their own decision, we are then getting an overwhelming amount of children into childcare centres who may or may not be getting the attachment that they need to be emotionally healthy," she warns.

The reality

Casey McCarry believes the law does need to be tightened.

"I know of people that have children just to stay on the benefit," she says.

She has plans for her own life. She has been a kapa haka performer, did a performing arts course at the University of Auckland, speaks te reo Maori and plans to study it further next year. She wants to become a social worker.

"I really hate being on a benefit," she says.

"I have always owned cool things, I have always been a cool person, I have never been a nobody.

"I want the best for my son. I want to be a provider, provide him with cool things."

But, instead of supporting her ambitions, the welfare system feels like an obstacle to them. The wananga where she plans to study next year has advised her not to tell Work and Income in advance, in case they cut off her benefit before her student allowance comes through.

"It peeves me off. The Government should give more money to smooth that study," she says.

"The new law is good but the bad thing is that there could be no jobs available and they could be just pressuring mothers to go on courses that they don't want to do. And they could be setting them up to fail."

She has always worked hard, doing three jobs at once while studying at Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi in Whakatane before she had Antonio.

"I definitely want to go back to work as soon as possible," she says.

"But 1 year old is too young. It's very important for you to be with your baby for the first few years of its life."