Expanding New Zealand’s Dependency Culture

New Zealand Centre for Political Research

The New Zealand Centre for Political Research is a web-based think tank that takes a research-based approach to public policy matters and encourages the free and open debate of political issues. www.nzcpr.com

You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help little men by tearing down big men.  You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred. You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than you earn. You cannot build character and courage by destroying men’s initiative and independence. You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they can and should do for themselves.

- Rev William Boetcker, 1916.

Child poverty has become a new frontier for socialist activism. It has been transformed from a social cause into a political agenda. The objective is to discredit the government and undermine parental responsibility in order to introduce more state intervention, higher taxes, and greater levels of income redistribution.

Last year child advocates – including the Children’s Commissioner – became shrill in their claim that 180,000 children lived in such dire poverty that their parents were sending them to school hungry. They pushed for government funded breakfast and lunch programmes to be set up in schools around the country. With schools closed for the summer break and their free food programmes no longer operating one could have expected a plethora of media commentary about hungry children. The lack of such stories confirms what common sense tells us – their assertions are a sham.

Fortunately child starvation in New Zealand is rare and is a symptom of severe family dysfunction and neglect, rather than a lack of money. When it occurs it should not be excused as child poverty and blamed on the government, for when parents fail to accept their full responsibility to feed their children properly, it is child abuse and the authorities should step in – like they did in a 2005 case of a mother who starved her two children aged 2 and 4 to the point where they were forced to eat toothpaste.

When these children were removed from their mother’s care by Child Youth and Family the 2-year-old weighed only 8.8kg, his hair was falling out, his skin was scaly and transparent, and he was unable to smile, walk, or talk. The 4-year old was so hungry she would not only eat toothpaste, but would refuse to leave the table, eating any crumbs of food that were left.

There was a further tragic twist to this case. The mother had a new baby and CYF rejected the application by her children’s foster parents for custody. When the premature baby, which spent the first five weeks in a hospital special care unit, was returned to his mother’s care, within a week he suffered such severe head injuries that he nearly died. While the mother initially denied culpability for facial injuries, a fractured skull, and bleeding of the brain – claiming someone else had caused the injuries – she eventually confessed to the crime. Although the baby survived, he suffered permanent brain damage and was placed in CYF’s care.

There is, of course, hardship in this country – from time to time even the most responsible of parents can fall on hard times and need support. But the activists’ claims that 180,000 children are being starved on a daily basis to the point where the government needs to set up nation-wide school feeding programmes is simply not credible. If they were doing their job, the media would be exposing that fact.  Instead they seem to prefer to parrot the sensational, but false, claims of activists.

The problem is that through their demands for free food in schools, child poverty advocates are expanding New Zealand’s dependency culture to embrace not just those on welfare, but working families as well. By encouraging parents to neglect their duty to provide nourishment for their children, activists are enticing them to rely on state handouts. Instead of empowering vulnerable families to strive to get ahead, they are undermining the cornerstone values of independence and personal responsibility upon which this nation was built.

The abhorrent consequences of dependency – and the victimhood mentality it creates – were aptly described in a newspaper report last month in the Southland Times about how an Invercargill family with six children blamed the Salvation Army for the fact that they were going to be missing out on Christmas.

Their woeful tale began in 2013, when the family had been registered for the Salvation Army’s Adopt-a Family scheme, which saw businesses and individuals sponsor struggling families over Christmas by providing a hamper filled with food and treats. When the family were again referred to the scheme by the Nga Kete Trust in 2014, they thought that their Christmas was again taken care of.

However, the Salvation Army requires families who receive assistance to take steps to help themselves through learning budgeting skills. So when the parents failed to attend their scheduled budgeting meetings, they were notified that they were no longer eligible for the scheme.

The family refused to accept that their predicament was of their own doing, and they blamed the Salvation Army. But if they had not relied on handouts in the first place, they would undoubtedly have made suitable arrangements for Christmas, in the same way that many other struggling families prepare for the big day – squirreling Xmas money away during the year, making or baking gifts… the options for an enjoyable low cost Christmas are endless, but it requires a family to take self responsibility for the situation they are in and to make the best of it with a positive attitude.

To their credit the Salvation Army recognises that dependency is damaging: “If we keep handing out we are enabling them to stay in the situation they are in. We aren’t actually helping them at all in the long run.” Their aim is to get families to the point where they can look after themselves and be self-sufficient. That’s why their major focus is on helping people to help themselves.

The reality is that most of the families whose children participate in the free food in schools programmes are not in dire need – they are simply opportunists taking advantage of the goodwill of others. After all, who wouldn’t take advantage of “free” goods on offer? The problem is that they are being used to progress a deeply political agenda and in the process, they are embracing an implicit message that it is acceptable to pretend you are too poor to provide breakfast for your children. It is a fine line.

Long-suffering taxpayers know that child poverty on a scale touted by the activists is a con. It only costs a few cents a day to give a child a bowl of porridge and some milk for breakfast, and a sandwich and some seasonal fruit for lunch. But tens of thousands of families have been coerced into pleading poverty and fabricating the truth by claiming that they cannot afford to feed their children, when, as the summer holiday is showing, they clearly can.

Fabricating the truth is also a problem in the welfare system. While the overwhelming majority of people receiving benefits do the right thing and follow the rules, there are a minority who regard welfare as an opportunity – putting their own greed first and taking money they are not entitled to.

According to a report by the Associate Minister of Social Development, during the 2013-14 financial year 4,614 investigations for potential benefit fraud were undertaken, 2,270 overpayments were established, and 893 people were prosecuted with a total of $88.4 million of fraud and illegitimate overpayments established.

Enhanced information sharing between Inland Revenue and the Ministry of Social Development is credited as preventing an estimated $44.8 million in illegitimate benefits being given out, resulting in almost 6,900 benefits being cancelled – mostly for former beneficiaries who were working and failed to notify the authorities.

Last year, when the government passed the Social Security (Fraud Measures and Debt Recovery) Amendment Act, the level of prosecuted fraud (debt owed to the government) stood at over $120 million. With around a third of all welfare fraud prosecutions being for relationship fraud, the law change will allow both clients and their complicit partners to be investigated and prosecuted for benefit fraud – if they are found to be living together while receiving a benefit that is dependent on them being single, such as a sole parent support.

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator, welfare researcher Lindsay Mitchell has been looking into the issue of benefit fraud:

“We all know plenty of people pulling a sole parent benefit have partners. Anecdotal evidence aside, there are two data sources pointing to this.

“One is the Growing up in NZ study. On the face of it, the level of sole parent benefit dependence does not marry up with the number of sole parent households when analysing the data from this longitudinal study following around 7,000 children from Auckland and the Waikato born in 2009/10.

“The second is more straight forward. Simon Chapple and Jonathon Boston reveal it in a passage from Child Poverty in New Zealand:

“Work undertaken at the Department of Labour and based on matching Household Labour Force Survey (HLFS) and administrative welfare records indicated, firstly, that in 2011 about 10 per cent of people whose welfare records showed that they were receiving an unemployment benefit reported to the HLFS that they were actually in full-time employment (i.e., working at least thirty hours a week), and hence were ineligible for the benefit; secondly, that more than one-third of people on an unemployment benefit self-reported as not actively seeking work – and one in five expressed no intention to seek work in the coming year; and, thirdly, that about 10 per cent of people whose welfare records showed that they were receiving a DPB reported being partnered or living as married.”

Benefit fraud is rife and the government is right to bring in stronger measures to combat it. But they also need to look at households.

In 2013, the Herald reported, that according to Ministry of Social Development figures, 50 households received more than $100,000 in taxpayer funded benefits. One Housing New Zealand property in Manukau had eight adults and 11 children living in it: “The weekly rent is $87 and collectively the household is getting $2499 in benefits each week, adding up to nearly $130,000 each year.”

Housing New Zealand guidelines state that there is a limit on the number of tenants who can live in a property – no more than two people per bedroom, children of a different gender 10 years and older should not share a bedroom, and household members 18 years and over should have a separate bedroom.

With 19 people living in that one state house, the tenants would have been in breach of their tenancy agreement. And why are they only paying $87 a week in rent?

When a single household receives $130,000 a year in welfare payments, then something must surely be wrong with the system!

THIS WEEK’S POLL ASKS:

Are you in favour of free breakfast in school programmes?

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