Guest Post: The Flaw in PM’s Plan

A guest post by Lindsay Mitchell:

In April this year the Minister laid out the progress she has made towards child poverty reduction since taking office. She said her government has “lifted tens of thousands of children from poverty and improved the lives of many others.”1

She makes one specific comparison over the time frame since becoming Minister – a “30% reduction in children aged 0-17 who live in low- households after housing costs, over three years (from 2017/18).”

This was achieved primarily by lifting benefits and family tax credits – and in particular introducing a $60 weekly child payment called Best Start.

She failed to mention she has also overseen thousands more children becoming dependent on benefits.

Between March 2018 and March 2022 the number of children in benefit-dependent households grew by 22 percent or almost 37,000.2 To picture this increase, imagine about one hundred good-sized schools.

I spent a number of years as a volunteer working with dependent families and came to know the tragic circumstances of a typical child on a benefit. But my sample is small so let me construct a profile based on New Zealand statistics.

Let’s call the child Sam. She’s five and lives in Northland (which has the highest % of its working-age population on welfare).3 She is Maori and lives with her sole mother (more dependent sole parents are Maori than any other ethnicity). Sam’s mum has debt to MSD of $4,000 (the average mean debt to MSD at June 2021)4 and receives hardship assistance for food (as one of  364,000 food grants issued in the March quarter). Sam lives in a private rental which is subsidised with a $160 weekly accommodation supplement.5 Sam has one older sibling and her mum has been on the benefit since leaving school (those entering the benefit system under twenty stay the longest)6. Sam’s mum is 25 and will probably remain on a benefit well into her thirties (average future years expected on a benefit is 12.4 at 2021 – up from 10.6 in 2017).7 There is also a high chance Sam will herself become a beneficiary (looking at a group of 83,000 children born in benefit households between 1993 and 1995, 47% had entered the benefit system themselves by age 23.)8

This then is a typical profile of a child in a benefit dependent household.

Less typical but still not statistically uncommon would be for Sam to have moved homes more than once since her birth;  to be known to Oranga Tamariki; to have a mother with a substance use problem and/or suffering mental ill-health, and to have a father serving a community or prison sentence.

Benefit dependency is a known risk for children. The likelihood of children suffering abuse or neglect increases in proportion to time spent on a benefit.9 The correlation is probably due to the inherent dysfunction of non-working households. There is no need for a routine, no need to get to a job and no need for kids to get to school (Covid has only exacerbated the malaise.)

This mirrors what I saw as a volunteer called into help families in crisis (some on benefits cope admirably well but they are the exception).

  • A sixteen year-old heavily pregnant Maori girl with a controlling and menacing Pakeha boyfriend twice her age and fresh out of prison. She is living in the house of her alcoholic and criminal  mother whom the Sallie Army has finally given up on.
  • A young Samoan man struggling to raise daughters (one not even his biological child) by a Maori mother who had abandoned them for gang life.
  • A self-absorbed  immature European girl whose child was always exhibiting the latest Dr Phil acting-out syndrome eg pulling at her hair was apparently ‘self-harming’.
  • Another older New Zealand European single mother deeply depressed and traumatised by a dark past she would hint at but never divulge. Not a game to participate in.
  • And yet another young, chaotic Pakeha female who’d lost custody of her child to her mother. She fantasized about being a human rights lawyer – also watching too much Oprah – but was only ever getting around to it. When I ferried her to the polytech to be interviewed for a course in nail-care she insisted on wearing her pyjamas and dressing gown. Any excuse to stay on a benefit and watch daytime telly I expect.


None had any real incentive to change as long as the money came in.

These are the lifestyles of unemployed parents. They themselves have often not grown to adulthood but we pretend they can provide consistent and caring parenting … if only the government just pays them more.

That’s the major thrust behind the Minister’s mission to reduce child poverty. Paying everybody more whether or not they earn it.

That’s the flaw in her plan. More money does not guarantee better child outcomes. In fact it does the very opposite when all it achieves is more children on benefits. She is never challenged on the flaw in her plan.

Who asks the hard questions about where all the extra money goes? Who asks why New Zealand has apparently record low unemployment but over 200,000 children relying on a parent on a benefit? Who asks about appalling and worsening school absenteeism? Who asks why New Zealand ranked last in child mental well-being in the most recent UNICEF report card?10 Who asks why only one in five Maori babies has married parents?

Who cares so long as the PM can pat herself on the back and claim to have achieved what she came to parliament for.

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