The New Zealand Labour Party led by the ever popular Jacinda Ardern surged in last weekend’s election, trouncing National, the main opposition party. Labour gained 49.1 percent of the vote and 64 of parliament’s 120 seats – enough to govern without a coalition partner.
Ardern rightly sees this as a mandate to lead the country through the thickets of Covid and recession by a centrist path – that is, without too many concessions to the Greens, who have increased their representation to 10 seats and need to be kept onside.
For the moment Ardern is focused on rebuilding the economy through loans to small businesses to create more employment, and other means. But one of her abiding ambitions is to eliminate child poverty. To help her with this I am offering some advice.
Congratulations to you and your Labour colleagues for winning the confidence of so many Kiwi voters. I was not one of them, but am encouraged by your promise to govern “for all New Zealanders” and your focus on economic revival and employment while maintaining safety measures against Covid at the border.
A preliminary caution: Please think carefully before alienating some of your new friends by implementing promised “rainbow” policies like banning professional therapy for people unhappy with their same-sex attraction, or promoting gender ideology in schools through insisting on gender neutral bathrooms. Transgenderism among children is a complex issue and the science on it is by no means settled.
On the other hand, nearly everyone would support your ambition to eliminate child poverty.
A year ago, according to the first official report under your government’s Child Poverty Reduction Act, more than 20 percent of New Zealand children lived in households with less than 50 percent of median disposable income after housing costs are deducted, and 13.4 percent lived in households unable to afford fresh fruit and vegetables, visits to the doctor or to pay power bills on time.
This is shameful for a small, generally prosperous country.
Unemployment due to Covid restrictions has evidently pushed more families into such hardship, but the long-term trend has been fed by an issue that is more fundamental and threatening to individual wellbeing and national prosperity than any other this country faces: the state of the New Zealand family.
The family is the basic cell of society but has been ignored by successive National and Labour governments for decades, and, except for the New Conservative Party, is still not on the political radar.
Oh yes, politicians talk about “families” and promise them all sorts of things – “secure, healthy and affordable housing” is a goal in your party manifesto – but you/they refuse to acknowledge that the family unit as such is crumbling, and this undermines every constructive policy you put forward.
In August a new book by demographer Paul Spoonley appeared. The New New Zealand shows how the decline of marriage and the family unit based on marriage is transforming developed countries into infertile, ageing societies that are unable to maintain their own workforce and yet have to support a large, mostly dependent older population. This is not exactly news, but it evidently needs restating for Kiwis.
According to OECD figures for the period 2006 to 2031 cited by Spoonley, our birthrate, which held up for longer than comparable economies, is now below replacement level at 1.8 children per woman. This figure is expected to decline further, while the number of couples who have any children decreases by 12 percent.
There are many reasons for the fertility implosion and they are not all about choice, since many surveys show that women would like more children than they actually have. A highly significant factor is the increasing number of people delaying marriage, and the accompanying rise in cohabitation.
Your own choices, Jacinda, clearly reflect this trend. But, while for you and your family it may work well, it is negative and even disastrous for others, feeding the poverty problem that you are so keen to solve.
The fact is that the poorest households in this country are those in which a single parent is caring for her children. According to a 2015 government report by Bryan Perry, 15 percent of children in two parent families fell below the poverty line in 2013 compared with 62 percent in single parent households.
The reason is fairly obvious: sole parents have much lower incomes, usually only a benefit, and are much less likely to own their home. Spoonley notes that in 2013 the median household income for a couple with children was $92,000, but for sole parents it was $33,100.
Already, around 30 percent of all family households in New Zealand are sole-parent families, and the OECD expects this figure to increase to 40 percent in the 2031 – a 29 percent rise since 2006, and the highest rise among developed countries. Our 40 percent would compare with an estimated 27 percent for the US and 18 percent for Germany.
I conclude from this that, without incremental government spending, there will be more and more poor families in New Zealand. And material poverty is not the only problem.
The relational poverty that comes from the absence or distance of one parent, usually the father, or from never really knowing him, is even worse for children. Children belong with their own mum and dad, and there is abundant evidence that they are most likely to enjoy the presence of both parents throughout their childhood when the latter have the stability of a marital commitment.
Some marriages will break down, regardless, and there are times when parental separation may be best for the children, but divorce rates are dropping while the number of sole parents continues to rise. Increasingly, this is because of casual or uncommitted relationships which do not last, and a child may experience more than one of these.
To quote Spoonley: “Today more than three-quarters of couples will live together in some form and then negotiate the nature of their future relationship, which might or might not include marriage.”
There is a widespread belief that cohabitation makes the marriages that do eventuate stronger, but evidence points in the opposite direction: after a year or so, marriages preceded by cohabitation are more likely to break down than those in which couples marry before living together.
These observations are not intended as a moral judgement on anyone’s family circumstances, including your own. They simply highlight the risk factors in a social trend that impacts hardest on people with fewer social advantages in upbringing, education and environment.
The truth is that marriage is still the safest and securest basis for family life, which is why the upper echelons of society are most likely to choose it for themselves. It is their best-kept secret.
What the world of entertainment and news media tell the poorer members of society, and what government policies imply, is that marriage doesn’t matter much. This is not true, and it’s not fair. In 2012 marriage was so important that it had to be opened to gay couples. Why doesn’t it matter now?
A government that really cares about the poor will encourage education about marriage and for marriage. Instead, in line with a 2018 report, schools have been issued “relationships and sexuality” guidelines this year that don’t even mention marriage but promote “gender diversity” and sow confusion in young minds about sex.
If you really want to solve poverty, start offering tax incentives to married couples with young children. Enlist the help of community organisations that can offer relationship and parenting education and support. Instead of government taking over more and more as the family provider, make marriage attractive and viable for low income couples so they can enjoy the self-esteem that comes from being able to provide for their own.
Above all, keep your eye on what is best for children. If it’s child poverty you are focusing on, then let the solutions be child-centred. Every child deserves the stability, economic advantage and relational wealth that married parents typically provide.
And if you can lead in this by example, there’s no better time than now.