So there are all these teen mum banging out babies, right? And it's costing all us taxpayers heaps. It's a modern scandal Something must be done. Now! Well, maybe not...

As unreliable as self-selecting TV and website polls are, it's fair to assume that most voters are applauding National's decision to offer free contraception to women on the benefit and their teenage daughters. The strong puritanical streak in our national psyche takes a firm line with people who have children when they can't afford to provide for them.

It has been a good way for a beleaguered government to win brownie points after a series of scandals and ahead of what is likely to be a grim Budget season.

And to be honest, I don't think the scheme's quite the devil's spawn some make it out to be. Sure, the hypocrisy evident in the willingness of parties based on the principles of individual freedoms to interfere in the lives of some citizens purely because they don't work for a living is worth noting. And I think the strongest argument against it is that it's being delivered by the department that pays people's benefits and helps them find jobs, not the one which cares for people's health.

What message does that send? That this is a financial concern, something restricting a person's duty to work? I'm surprised from a purely political point of view that this hasn't been administered through Vote Health.

But let's also acknowledge the value of making it as easy as possible for women to avoid unwanted pregnancies, for the sake of the resulting unwanted children as much as what it means for the women. And targeting teens makes sense.

What's more, Pharmac already funds long-term contraception and the tiny $1 million price tag on this policy is telling - very few people will be touched by this "initiative". For all the hoop-la and headlines, it'll be interesting to see how much of that $1 million is spent in the first year.

On that point, the main purpose of this post is to offer a chart. I'll paste it in below.

I've just spotted the Herald's editorial this morning and my chart reinforces it's perceptive commentary on the policy:

The National Party has a tendency to exaggerate the problem of beneficiaries having babies, particularly in their teens. Mothers under 19 give birth to about 7 per cent of babies born in New Zealand each year. The rate has been fairly stable regardless of contraceptive campaigns. The true scale of the problem can be seen in the amount the Government has budgeted for its latest programme: a mere $1 million in a package of $287 million to give unemployed teenagers further education and training. The number of 16- to 18-year-old parents on a benefit is just 1165. The number of 16- to 17-year-olds on all benefits is not much greater: 1400.

Those numbers make much of my point for me. But I've got something else.

Many New Zealanders see teen DPB mums as a modern scourge, a crippling problem for this country. That's in large part because certain politicians have been willing to use them to score points over the years.

The reality is substantially different from the myth. See this:

Characteristics of working-age Domestic Purposes Benefit recipients (aged 18–64 years), at the end of March 2007 and at the end of March 2012

Percentage of recipients who were:

Mar-2007

Mar-2012

Male

10.2

12.2

Female

89.8

87.8

Māori

40.6

42.6

Pacific people

9.6

10.2

18–19 years

3.1

2.7

20–24 years

14.8

16.9

25–39 years

50.7

46.0

40–54 years

26.8

28.3

55–64 years

4.6

6.1

Declaring earnings

20.9

16.9

Caring for a dependent child aged 6 years or under*

60.4

62.1

Caring for a dependent child aged 7–13 years*

29.8

27.4

Caring for a dependent child aged 14 years or over*

9.8

10.5

Caring for two or more dependent children*

50.8

48.6

 

 

 

Number of working-age Domestic Purposes Benefit

recipients (aged 18–64 years)

 

97,142

113,005

The figures in bold highlight a fascinating wee factoid that's my current favourite. There are more than twice as many women aged over 55 on the DPB than there are teens on the DPB.

Indeed, just 2.7 percent of the DPB population are teens. Hardly a generation breeding for business, is it?

Comments (16)

by Graeme Edgeler on May 09, 2012
Graeme Edgeler

If its a factoid, why are you quoting it?

:-)

by Tim Watkin on May 09, 2012
Tim Watkin

Because I'm using it according to a different definition than you:

1

: an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print  2 : a briefly stated and usually trivial fact
You're talking about definition 1, I'm meaning 'factoid' as a briefly stated wee detail.Nice try, though.
by Chris de Lisle on May 09, 2012
Chris de Lisle

A friend of mine has written a good blog post on this: http://merxplat.com/2012/05/08/contraception/

She suggests that the policy is motivated from a genuine (upper class) belief that women shouldn't be having children at a young age (i.e., it is a humanitarian initiative, though probably a misguided one). I agree with this, largely because I don't think this policy actually mollifies the die-hard 'damn those teen mothers on the benefit' types- they, I feel, are inclined to construe this as paying for beneficieries to have sex 'on the taxpayer's dime'

Additionally she suggests that the policy is intentionally not under Vote Health to avoid stirring up the anti-abortion and contraception lobby, including their allies in the Maori party. This on the assumption that they are less likely to get het up about a policy targeting beneficieries than one targeting the general populace. I mention all this because I think your factoid quite nicely supports that - the lobby is highly unlikely to get worked up about a group that is not only exceptionally unpopular, but also almost non-existant.

(As for "factoid," the -oid suffix means "form, shape, likeness of." That can mean that it's like a fact (but not actually one), but it doesn't have to: consider "steroid," which means "sterol-like chemicals" and includes sterols or "planetoid," like a planet but smaller, which has shades of both)

by Boris on May 09, 2012
Boris

Hi Tim,

What is the source for your stats? Be good to have that clarified. Otherwise great view point

Kindest, Boris

by Phil Sage on May 09, 2012
Phil Sage

jeez, nice misdirection.

As LIndsay Mitchell has pointed out any number of times, it is not the age of DPB recipients at a point in time that counts.  It is the continuing behaviour and what age were recipients when they FIRST went onto the DPB.

I find it scary that nearly 1 in 5 on DPB are under 24 at your stated point in time.  Add all of the additional children and you have a seriously costly (both financially and socially) behavioural problem.  

 

by Tim Watkin on May 10, 2012
Tim Watkin

Thanks, Boris, quite right to ask. The chart was corrupting all over the place when I was pasting it in and taking the source line out seemed to help. But it came from the Ministry of Social Development. The line under the chart is:

Source:   IAP, numbers of working-age Domestic Purposes Benefit recipients at the end of March

 

 

by Tim Watkin on May 10, 2012
Tim Watkin

Interesting Chris, thanks. It's an important point - I'd be curious to know how many women take up Pharmac's free contracpetion at the moment, because I suspect very few women will actually use this extended scheme.

by Matthew Percival on May 10, 2012
Matthew Percival

I don't think this policy has achieved popularity due to any poltician over-hyping the size of the issue.

I believe It's a case of New Zealanders inherent belief that adults should take responsibility for their own decisions. Those individuals on the DPB do not have the resources to raise additional children. The outcomes for those children are generally not flash and the taxpayer has to foot the bill for the parents selfishness in having a child with insufficient means to raise it.

The only thing that is wrong with this policy is that it doesn't go far enough. How adults can be allowed to produce offspring in the full knowledge they don't have the means to raise that child is beyond my comprehension! It's setting their offspring up for failure which is not fair on the child and can have detrimental consequences for our society.

Also, I'm not sure why you have focussed almost exclusively on teens in your piece when this policy has a far broader reach.

by Tim Watkin on May 10, 2012
Tim Watkin

Matthew, that's because the scheme is aimed at young women first, then is being extended to other women six months later. An odd approach.

Bennett has repeatedly said that women who go on the DPB in their teens stay on for longer without ever mentioning how few women she's talking about. I view that as spin. I think the Rebstock report stressed statistics that emphasised a certain world view as well.

But I'm not just aiming it at this government – teens mums have been easy fodder for years.

Nevertheless, you'll have noticed in the post that I said I think New Zealanders do have a firm instinct when it comes to parents on welfare. Of course it'd be great if anyone who had a child had "the resources" to raise that child; I want a world, not just a country, where no child wants for anything. But I find rather a rather trite statement.

Some of these pregnancies are mistakes, some are rape, some are accidents pretty-darn close to rape, some are bad choices by women who don't know any other way, some people don't have the resources because we're in a jobless recovery, some parents find themselves alone because their partner walks away... and on and on. And yes, some of the kids are victims of parents who think another kid will mean a bigger benefit. But let's not lump all of life's complexities into that one category, eh?

You make me nervous when you say the policy doesn't go far enough. How far do you want to go? And how do you go there without punishing the kids for the sins of the parents?

by william blake on May 11, 2012
william blake

Matthew, I take issue with your observation that "adults should take responsibility for their own decisions" as being an "inherent belief". Just look at the rate of personal debt that has been racked up over the past decade, not too responsible really. The braying from people who invested at a too high rate of return in Dodge city finance cos, and the ever escalating cost of housing driven by everybody's irresponsible desire to profit from  what should be homes rather than 'housing stock'.

To point the finger at penniless, pregnant, teenage girls is hypocritical victim blaming of the lowest order.

by Matthew Percival on May 11, 2012
Matthew Percival

Thanks for the explanation Tim, I agree it's a strange approach to extend this scheme after 6 months, it's not like the 6 months is a trial period!

As a parent, sole of otherwise, when you have a baby you are taking on a liability for the next 18 or so years. That is a massive financial commitment for which there is currently little process to ascertain if the parent(s) are capable of making such a commitment. If you went to a bank to borrow $200,000 over 18 years the bank would want to see some evidence of repayment yet we let people have children with no such evidence that they are capable of financially raising a child.

By having no such requirements we are setting up children for failure which is not fair for the innocent child.

Punitive measures against parents are ineffective as they simply get passed to the children thus inhibiting their ability to succeed. We need a different approach which could be anything from compulsory budgeting courses to sterilisation (that's a whole different debate). Free contraceptives isn't going to be enough.

@William you also raise a whole new debate so to stay on topic I wont respond except to say that I don't entirely agree with your perspective!

by Jayme Thompson on May 11, 2012
Jayme Thompson

On whether people shouldn't have children "if they can't afford it", I wonder how people propose to determine what "afford" means?

Being able to “Afford” children is very subjective. What percentage of our parent’s generation would honestly be able to say they confidently felt they could afford to have their children? Should people pay off their mortgages or other debt before having children? If this were the case, a lot of us would not be here and practically no one should be having children today, given than it is popular economic sense that we should pay our debts before we financially burden ourselves further.

While I personally agree that it wouldn’t be a wise financial decision to have another child while on the DPB, sometimes life circumstances put people into this situation for reasons too complex to solely blame the mother to be.

From my personal experience, having grown up for part of my life with a mother on the DPB, I believe good parenting is less about money and more about support and moral education. Growing up without much money, I now have a strong sense of how important economic self sufficiency is and am motivated to be a productive member of society and not to be a burden on anyone. I wish I could have had more tuition, had cooler clothes, family holidays, less mince or fish fingers for dinner, a TV and a car to go to the supermarket in, but now as an adult of thirty, looking back, all I think that matters most is your parent’s love and support.

In contrast, people I know that have grown up in privileged families does not guarantee their children a better life, nor less strain on taxpayers. Having everything handed might get you into a private school, private tuition, the best clothing, not to mention access to a world of technological gadgets and other trimmings; it does not however guarantee that you will become a considerate, helpful, motivated member of society. How many 30ish males from wealthy backgrounds still live at home without decent jobs, but rather decent drug problems? Go out one night in Ponsonby and you are bound to meet a few…

For people, should they exist, that think having another child on the benefit is a viable option to get more money, I really don’t think any voluntary contraception, no matter how free it is, is going to make any iota of difference. This is because I think there is more to it than these people not having access to free contraception that makes them think this option is viable. It is not until those issues are tackled that the ills of this matter can be properly rectified.

I do think however, that the ideology behind this scheme only puts women in already extremely vulnerable circumstances under greater and unwarranted pressure (should pregancy occur). How will this help them provide the love and support that their growing children really need?  

by donna on May 11, 2012
donna

And a further snippet: The rate of teen births now is half what it was in the 1970s (the point of reference for most of the government's and the public's moral advisors).

I haven't seen anything that justifies in sound policy terms the $1 million figure. It's a token amount, especially if it's over four years (a 5-year IUD costs around $400, about 2,500 sole parents and their daughters).

But the point surely is that contraception is NOT a welfare issue. Logically such policies should be implemented through the Health budget, then perhaps we wouldn't get the rampant discrimination whereby such assistance is not available to all low-income women. Working women can be in poverty, too. But the Welfare Working Group simply picked up the moral arguments for the welfare reform used in the US, and the government has chosen to run with them.

Teen parenting units have been successful at teaching parenting skills, educating young women and most importantly, giving them hope. But they're expensive, the results take time, and they don't make good dog-whistle politics.

by Tim Watkin on May 12, 2012
Tim Watkin

Matthew, thanks for your response. We agree that a punitive approach doesn't work and that parents should, ideally, be aware of the responsibility they're taking on – financially and in every other way. But of course sex and love and kids aren't always such clean-cut things. Buying a house, for example, is a very deliberate, drawn-out, pay-up-front process; sex isn't. Shit happens and finances often aren't exactly front of mind!

And as important as a stable financial life is, let's remember that it's far from everything. Plenty of rich kids are abused, ignored and messed-up by their parents and plenty of poor kids are rich in love and learning. Some young mums, solo mums and poor mums make great parents.

But I also agree free contraception is a bit of a fuss about a little and will attract few women.

William makes a good point that we don't take such a blaming attitude to those who invested in finance companies that collapsed or borrowed heaps to buy a house – and they've been more of a burden to the taxpayer. Perhaps the solo mum trusted a bloke the same way they trusted a finance company or an estate agent.

by Tim Watkin on May 12, 2012
Tim Watkin

Jayme and Donna... well said, thanks for your thoughtful words.

by DeepRed on May 15, 2012
DeepRed

If anyone here has read Freakonomics, the authors made a connection between the Roe vs Wade court ruling in 1973, and slumping crime rates in America a generation later.

According to the authors, Roe vs Wade basically legalised abortion, which led to fewer unwanted babies, which in turn led to fewer delinquents and career criminals. They also emphasised that it all happened by accident - hence the word Freakonomics - with no coercion from the State.

From that, I gather that for contraception to work, it needs to be destigmatised, as happened with Roe vs Wade. Paula Bennett, on the other hand, seems to be doing the opposite by squarely targeting the 'lumpenproletariat'.

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