Solo parents a political football
Across New Zealand society, marriage has become unfashionable. Sole parents have increased from 10 per cent of families with dependent children in 1976 to 29 per cent today – higher than in any other developed country except the United States. By the age of 20, 35 per cent of Pakeha children, 49 per cent of Pacific children and 57 per cent of Maori children have lived in homes without one parent, usually the father.
Forty-one per cent of Pakeha babies, 55 per cent of Pacific babies and 76 per cent of Maori babies were born last year to unmarried parents.
The Labour Government sees nothing to worry about. In a Herald interview five years ago, Social Development Minister Steve Maharey said that as long as sole parents were “able to provide love, discipline and sound nurturing, things are going to be okay”.
But National leader Don Brash told the Orewa Rotary Club that the domestic purposes benefit (DPB) had contributed to the growth in fatherlessness and births outside marriage: “It is idle to pretend this is anything but a disastrous trend.”
Sole parents are accustomed to being political footballs, but Brash’s proposals would be tougher than any previous regime since the DPB was created in 1973. They raise questions. Why does New Zealand have such a high rate of sole parenthood? Does it matter?
The DPB is a major factor in the rise of sole parenthood. Mothers who, before 1973, felt stuck in marriages can now leave, knowing the state will support them.
A British study of child benefits in 2002 found that New Zealand’s DPB was the ninth most generous out of 22 developed countries. In contrast, New Zealand treats couples with children worse than most. It was the only one of the 22 countries that paid neither family benefits nor child tax credits to a couple with two children earning the average men’s wage plus half the average women’s wage.
The latest increase in family support has not changed that. National calculated in January that a family comprising a father earning $12.50 an hour and a fulltime mother with a baby would get just $23,254 a year after allowing for family support and taxes.
But if the mother went on the DPB the couple could get $35,780 between them.
In the past few decades, women’s reproductive and financial independence fed a new wave of feminism that was part of a general liberation of individuals from economic bondage to the farm or the production line, bondage to the church and social bondage to the family.
Marriage came to seem oppressive and patriarchal, embodied in vows to “love, honour and obey”.
Auckland Women’s Centre worker Leonie Morris, who wrote a thesis on sole parents in 1999, says a big factor breaking up marriages is domestic violence. A 1996 survey found that 73 per cent of New Zealand women, including 90 per cent of Maori women, had experienced at least one act of physical or sexual violence by their partners.
“That attitude is blind domestic violence,” she says. “It’s about men wanting to control women, control their behaviour and still believing that what they say should go, that they should rule the home.”
Economist Paul Callister has uncovered another surprising factor producing more sole mothers – a shortage of men. Last year, New Zealand had 109 women for every 100 men at the peak childbearing age of the early 30s.
The imbalance is worsened when you consider only “marriageable” men, now that women are better educated and more men than in the past are unemployed, earning low and insecure incomes or in jail.