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LINDSAY MITCHELL: Babies and benefits - no good news

Ten years ago, I wrote the following in a Listener column:

Every year around one in five new-born babies will be reliant on their caregivers benefit by Christmas. This pattern has persisted from at least 1993. For Maori the number jumps to over one in three.   Add to this Treasury's advice to the Ministerial Committee on Child Poverty,

"...around 1 in 5 children will spend more than half of their first 14 years in household supported by main benefit. This group is at the highest risk of material hardship and poor outcomes across a range of dimensions”.

I am reflecting on this as I receive the latest update in an OIA response from MSD.

Of all the babies born in 2023, 20.2 percent were on a benefit by the end of December. For Maori babies the percentage rises to 34.3%.

My news is not really news. It is confirmation of the ‘same-old, same-old.’ Progress had been made when, by 2017, the portion had fallen to 17.1 percent of all children, but we all know what happened next. The Minister for Child Poverty Reduction – Jacinda Ardern – made it her task to lift welfare incomes for beneficiaries with children.

She said in her 2008 maiden speech:

The majority of children living in poverty now are dependants in families where the main means of support is a Government benefit. But if we believe that our welfare State is a necessary safety net and a support for those unable to support themselves—as I do—then the children living in these circumstances should not be living in poverty. These children are not part of an underclass, as I have heard them called; they are part of our community, and we have a responsibility to continue the momentum of the previous Labour Government and to finally rid ourselves of poverty in Aotearoa New Zealand. This is our collective challenge.

She would have responded to Treasury’s evidence (that these children face material hardship and poor outcomes) by arguing, ‘Of course, that’s because they don’t have enough money.’

She had no sympathy for the counter arguments that growing up fatherless (72% of last year’s welfare babies had caregivers on the Sole Parent Support benefit) and in jobless households, is also harmful for children. Ardern was happy to risk more of both in order to claim a poverty reduction.

In 2016 when I wrote a paper demonstrating the strong link between failing family structure and growing child poverty, Ardern responded flippantly in a Sunday Star Times column:

This week I opened the paper to find some astonishing "news" - a lack of marriage is to blame for child poverty.

I've spent the better part of six years reading and researching the issue of child poverty, and what we need to do to resolve this complex problem in New Zealand

And yet here it was, the silver bullet we have all been looking for. Marriage. Getting hitched. Tying the knot. It turns out that we didn't need an Expert Advisory Group on child poverty, or any OECD analysis for that matter - apparently all we really need is a pastor and a party.

No matter that the strongest correlate for child poverty is the sole parent rate. The collapse of the stable two-parent family – particularly for Maori whereby last year 82.5 percent of babies were born to unmarried parents – has had a dramatic effect here and around the western world. Yes, many more parents live together without “tying the knot” but the stability of de facto relationships does not match the stability of marriages, especially with the advent of children. Ardern herself must have eventually felt some regard for the institution or wouldn’t have entered into herself.

But the genie that is unpartnered parenting is not going back in the bottle. The too-frequent accompanying feature - being born and raised on welfare - is now firmly part of the NZ social landscape.

Are there any glimmers of hope for future change?

I had anticipated that the significant reduction in teenage births post 2008 would put a clamp on one of the main feeder mechanisms to long-term dependency. Initially, Sole Parent Support recipients aged 18-24 reduced but for the last six years, the numbers have stuck despite further drops in the relevant birth rates.

National has not included sole parent benefits in its two welfare reform targets. New MSD Minister Louise Upston has been a single mother and called it “the hardest time of my life.” Her approach seems to be a softly, softly plan to help single parents into work. She does not have the bit between her teeth in quite the same way her predecessor Paula Bennett did.

On a brighter note, NZ’s culture may yet be positively influenced by our fastest growing minority – Asians. This group is by and large family-oriented, self-reliant and takes care of its young as evident below:

(Note: When their youngest child turns 14 the parent/caregiver moves onto Jobseeker benefit. They remain on Sole Parent Support if younger children are under 14.)

What these immigrants (and subsequent generations) think about NZ’s lackadaisical benefit system can only be guessed at. But their attitudes will find political expression in the coming years.

NZ may not be willing or able to continue fully subsidising the cost of raising children long-term at the rate of one in every five. While Jacinda Ardern might consider it our “collective challenge” to do so, I prefer the restoration of committed stable partnerships between parents as a far more worthy goal. But to achieve that, damaging incentives have to go.

Lindsay Mitchell blogs here



3,064 views109 comments


W deVries
W deVries
5 days ago

Nicely put, Lindsay

This is yet another example of where many New Zealanders want to fruit of our Judeo-Christian history, but not the root.

Western civilisation can be compared to a man sitting on a high branch in tree - busy sawing it off. We're down to about the last couple of inches. A bible passage comes to mind "...and great was its fall.” Jesus - Matt 7:27. It's the conclusion of the parable of the wise and foolish man, building their house on bedrock, or shifting sand.


Lindsay, Your knowledge and research is superb, and it is clear New Zealand has to change.

Please tell us what exactly should any Government who really cares about our children do.

Please write the paper and share with us. With your skills we would love to read it. We need to start a revolution for the sake of our future generation, starting with policy.


The other point to consider here is the amount of abuse that permeates society and in particular, those on benefits and in Northland. It is generational and heart breaking. Little folk being locked in rooms for days, suffering from hunger and dehydration, cigarette burns etc. I could not treat a mouse like that. These kids end up in our system. They are traumatized beyond help and cost taxpayers for their lifespan, in one form or another. These kids go to school; get what support they can but nothing resolves the trauma. These babies are broken. They then end up on benefits and breed. There is undiagnosed Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the effects of "P" throughout our schools etc. I have…

Replying to

Saw that as a young man almost 50 years ago. Depressing that in all that time there has been zero improvement and i believe it may in fact be worse.

Fear of being accused of racism is stopping meaningful change in my opinion. Pandering to an elite will in no way stop this.


The great American economist and political commentator Thomas Sowell has written extensively about this problem from an American context.

In the USA the vast majority of black men come from fatherless homes and invariably get their male role models from the gangs they get drawn into. The result: low academic achievement, criminal activity, unemployment, anti-social behaviour, unable to form steady, caring relationships with women and so the cycle repeats itself. Affirmative action to help blacks which was introduced in the 1960's destroyed the black family unit, and therefore the socio economic situation for most of them went downhill which, incidentally, had been steadily improving throughout most of the 20th century up until that point.

In NZ, substitute Maori for Black…


The so called "sexual revolution" in the '60s delivered the key to this door. What had generally worked well for yonks was the practice of a man and woman (funny, that!) meeting, becoming well acquainted, falling in love even, marrying and then commencing the physical activity that may result in pregnancy and children. Sound quaint? It worked for us.

From the '60s there was oral contraceptives (I'm not referring to the best one -- the word "NO!"), and men in particular seemed free to shag whom they pleased, women were daft enough to be in the game, and when the pill failed (if even used), the screaming ninnies demanded that they -- and the couldn't-care-less fathers if they could be…

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