On elephants in rooms

The laundry was piling up, and the dishwasher hadn’t been emptied. But I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t watching the NBA semi-final that featured our hairy, 7-foot lad. I’m talking about Family First’s Child Poverty and Family Structure report by Lindsay Mitchell.

I got obsessive. I read the whole document from start to finish. Then I read what the critics had to say. Then I researched the research related to the criticisms. Then I read other reports about poverty in New Zealand.

And I have come to an astonishing conclusion; they’re right. Family structure is the elephant in the room when it comes to the causes of poverty.  Also, I obviously have too much time on my hands.

But back to Family First and the endless parade of papers from the MSD or SuperU or The Treasury relating to poverty. All of them talk about the same “risk factors”; like unemployment, being Maori or Pacifica, and renting a home. They all also mention being a sole parent. Strangely, trying to support strong, healthy relationships doesn’t come up later among the policy suggestions.

And our experts seem quite determined to keep it that way. Inequality researcher Max Rashbrooke went straight past parenting and talked about the Scandinavian welfare system, which he hinted had almost obliterated child poverty.

But the literature I found said that Scandiavian sole parents were far more likely to be in work than in most other OECD countries. That means they’re less likely to need the state. It also pointed out that parents in poverty were far more likely to be on their own than part of a couple.

So even the Scandinavians need to talk about family structure when it comes to poverty.

Academic Susan St John said some very sensible things, like how there’s a lot wrong with Government policy, employment and housing. Then she said those things were more important than family structure. But I looked at the research directly comparing loss of a relationship to loss of a job  (because I thought she was probably right) and was quite astonished. Loss of a relationship is a trigger event for far more families falling into poverty than loss of a job.

Over and over again, in government research, official statistics and papers published by other organisations this same pattern repeats.

And here’s why it all makes sense. First, break-ups when you’re the average adult are a horribly expensive process. It’s not just the paperwork, it’s not just the lawyers, it might be the counsellors, the psychologists, or simply the change in schools and new uniforms for the kids.

Next, it means an entirely new household has to be set up – another house needs to be rented, another fridge, washing machine, microwave and maybe even a car needs to be bought.

Those two people whose incomes were possibly already stretched, now face a remarkable number of costs. Which is why it’s no surprise the data shows that sole parents have higher levels of debt.

And of course, once you’ve got higher debts, and higher household costs as a proportion of income, you’ve got a very difficult financial hole to get out of.

But stay married, or in that de facto relationship, and you get to sail straight past all of those costs and pressures.

That’s why it makes sense to encourage strong, healthy, happy marriages if we want to keep kids out of poverty. (And I do mean good marriages: abusive, unhappy marriages can lead to unhappy, potentially abusive or abused, children. Those children then have less stable relationships when they grow up, and so are more likely to fall into poverty. Bad marriages don’t help anyone).

Life isn’t perfect, so we do need to have help available when a relationship break up brings poverty. But surely it we should at least be talking about how to support strong relationships, and avoid break ups, in the first place?

Because we can’t afford to be more afraid of elephants than we are fond of our children.

This article was originally published on Stuff.co.nz

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