Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns

Lindsay Mitchell on bleeding heart, Tapu Misa

Lindsay Mitchell is the best informed welfare commentator in New Zealand, although she seldom gets reported in the media which is in the grip of those who make a living from farming welfare.

Welfare commentator Lindsay Mitchell responds to Tapu Misa.

Tapu Misa, writing about the National government's welfare reforms in her Monday column, said my problem is with "unwed teenage mothers who keep swelling the ranks of the DPB" because the idea of the DPB is "too seductive to pass up. Who would choose this as a lifestyle option? Not the seventh form girls at the Auckland private school I spoke to recently. They'd never even heard of the DPB."

But that's hardly surprising. The teen birth rate of girls in the poorest decile, girls who don't attend private schools, is almost 10 times that of girls in the wealthiest. Girls attending private schools have families with high expectations of them and opportunities abound. Girls in the poorest decile will have much slimmer career prospects and motherhood stacks up alongside reasonably well. This doesn't necessarily mean they make an active decision to get pregnant and go on the DPB or EMA (which they can do from age 16). What they fail to do is avoid getting pregnant with no means of supporting the child. The availability of a benefit most certainly influences their actions.
Misa says there is no evidence for the claims that welfare payments provide incentives for childbearing, or discourage marriage.
But there is. Research for the US Department of Human and Health Services by Anne Hill and June O'Neill showed that a 50 percent increase in the value of welfare payments and food stamps led to a 43 percent increase in unmarried births. Numerous other studies, and not just American, have identified a similar association.

She continues, "Women don't need to be dragged kicking and screaming off the DPB, they need good childcare and secure, well-paying jobs".
If women want "secure, well-paying jobs" they need to plan for that eventuality. Nothing has more potential to interrupt an education or absolve one of the need to get an education better than the certainty of a welfare income that pays more than the minimum wage.
Quoting Economics Professor Susan St John, Misa writes "...when the job conditions are favourable and unemployment is low, benefit numbers fall".

So what did we see with the DPB during the economic boom? A drop from a 1998 high of 113,000 to 97,000 in 2008. The current number is 109,000. Most are single parents. The core of long-termers, especially those who start young and stay longest, was unaffected.

Australian Professor Bob Gregory's research is used to show that women do want to get off welfare but when they succeed, fail to stay off it. But the most astounding aspect of his study is his estimation that women stay on welfare for an average total of at least 12 years. This did not include benefits they might transfer to when they no longer had dependent children in their care, which supports my view that welfare has transformed into far more than a last resort safety net.

It is unclear to me what Tapu Misa is trying to achieve with this column. Work and strong families are an integral part of Pacific culture. A denial that welfare can undermine both is self-defeating. But if she doesn't want to find the evidence then a private girl's school is absolutely the best place to go looking for it.