Last month the New Zealand’s progressive government delivered its promised wellbeing budget, defined as one that takes account not only of material measures of progress like gross national product, but also of intangibles like people’s quality of life and sense of personal wellbeing. Ministers will have to show how their spending proposals will achieve this, and how they actually have made a difference as time goes on.

Well, we certainly need someone to put their hand on the happiness side of the scales.

Kiwis constantly read headlines informing us that, far from being a little South Sea paradise, our isles harbour some of the highest levels of mental illness, suicide, child poverty and domestic violence among comparable countries. There’s an affordable housing crisis and increasing homelessness. We are wrecking our beautiful natural environment and this is making schoolchildren in particular unhappy and angry.

As Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said: “Nobody wants to live in a country where, despite a strong economy, families are homeless, where our environment is being rapidly degraded and people with mental health issues do not receive the support they need.” 

Obviously, we need to Do Something. But what?

Ardern told the World Economic Forum earlier this year that Kiwis need a good dose of empathy and kindness from the government in order to thrive and regain their trust in political institutions.

Her most direct and expensive bid in this direction is to budget $1.9 billion for mental health and addiction problems. A large slice of this money goes to early intervention by frontline mental health workers with the aim of helping 325,000 people by 2024. (The total population of New Zealand is almost 4.9 million, so about 15 percent of us.)

Poverty is being addressed through child poverty targets and welfare reform – also big ticket items. An affordable housing construction programme is also under way, though faltering as to momentum and affordability.

Yet, even if all the targets were met, would this be enough to set us on the road to national wellbeing and trust? Even if the country could earn or borrow enough money to make everyone well, comfortable and trusting in the government, would the sources of anxiety and unhappiness dry up? That seems unlikely, since the sources of malaise have little to do with money in the first place.

As everyone knows from experience, the chief source of personal happiness (aka wellbeing) is being loved. And the first place we receive love is in the family; if we do not receive it there, we may have a deficit of happiness that is hard to make up unless we find in someone else, or others, the kind of unconditional love that good parents and siblings provide.

We also know – from numerous studies, if not from experience – that the most stable families are those in which mother and father have committed themselves to each other and future children by marriage, and that these are the families in which children are most likely to thrive.

When we look at the New Zealand family, however, the picture is rather discouraging.

The marriage rate (which includes civil unions) is barely a quarter of what it was four decades ago. The divorce rate is declining along with the decline in marriages and fewer children are therefore affected by divorce. However, more children are being born to cohabiting or unpartnered women – nearly 50 percent in recent years and 80 percent for Maori.

(Prime Minister Ardern herself fits this pattern currently, but has announced her engagement to be married to her partner, Clarke Gayford.)

While single mothers may subsequently cohabit or marry, cohabitating unions are less stable than marriage and there is a far higher risk that children will experience family breakdown by adolescence. This fragility tends to leave everyone involved more at risk of conflict, unhappiness and, in the event of breakdown, financial hardship.

A series of reports based on New Zealand data by Family First NZ shows correlations between unmarried parenthood and the increase in child abuse, child poverty and imprisonment rates. Judging by British research there is also a link with mental illness. “Family breakdown is the single biggest predictor of internalised and externalised problems for boys and girls,” reports the UK’s Marriage Foundation.

According to New Zealand’s Health Promotion Agency, 15- to 20-year-olds report high levels of isolation linked with mental illness. HPA suggests “promoting family/whanau wellbeing” as one strategy for breaking down such isolation, which is at least a recognition of where a fundamental remedy lies. An army of frontline mental health workers cannot make up for a warm, stable family.

All the dysfunction and misery comes at a considerable cost to the public purse, as the recent budget demonstrates. But successive governments, and the research establishment, have done nothing to show they recognise the role that family structure plays in personal and social wellbeing. “Family” has become an almost meaningless word, denoting any household with children. The focus of anti-poverty measures is “child poverty” not the circumstances of the parent or parents, which present too many challenges.

Children, however, know that the family is what counts for wellbeing. They were not consulted about the new, woke budget; but from a survey of more than 6000 children, their official advocate, the Children’s Commissioner, reported early this year that there were “four key insights about what a good life means and what we could focus on to improve wellbeing for all children and young people”.

The most specific of these was that “family and whānau [a Maori word that extends beyond the nuclear family] are crucial. We heard that in order for children to be well, their families must be well and involved in making things better.” And also: “Children and young people want more than just a minimum standard of living. Things such as feeling accepted, valued and respected are just as important.”

Which kids are more likely to have families that are well, in which they feel accepted and valued, and therefore enjoy greater wellbeing? A large body of research points to those who are born to a married mother and father, if only because those parents are more likely to remain together – for the children’s sakes, as much, or even more than for their own.

There are other factors that affect child and adult being, but if New Zealand wants to raise happier, healthier generations of citizens it cannot afford to resign itself to the collapse of marriage and the instability, stress and often misery this has introduced into children’s lives. It must move beyond sentiments of empathy and kindness to all, and focus on rebuilding and supporting the basic social unit: the family founded on marriage.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet