Put sole parents to work, says Act


New Zealand, Australia and Britain are the only Western countries where single parents can stay on welfare until their youngest child leaves school, an Act-organised meeting has been told.

The director of social policy research programmes at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, Professor Peter Saunders, told delegates that all Western countries except NZ, Australia and Britain expected single parents to return to work once their youngest child was at school.

Some, such as the state of Wisconsin in the US, made welfare parents return to work when their child was just three months old.

"But the Swedes, the Germans, the French ... all the continental Europeans have an expectation that single parents will go back into the labour force at least part time, at least once the youngest child starts school," Professor Saunders said.

"We are, in Britain, New Zealand and Australia, way out of line on this and I think it's a mistake."

In New Zealand in 1970 there were 28 workers for every beneficiary; now there are four for every one.

Professor Saunders predicted that, at the current rate, there would be only two workers paying for every one person on welfare in 40 years' time.

He advocated welfare reform but said on its own it was not enough; with it needed to go labour market and tax reform.

People could not get off benefits if there were not enough jobs for them to go to, and they would have no incentive if they could barely earn more money working than on a benefit because the taxman took too much.

He advocated a tax-free threshold of A$14,000 ($15,380).

The weekend symposium, organised by Act deputy leader and welfare spokeswoman Muriel Newman, had speakers from New Zealand and Australia and, via video link, Britain and the United States.

Professor Lawrence Mead, who teaches public policy and United States government at New York University, told the symposium the American welfare system was reformed in the late 80s-early 90s, prompted by rapidly growing family aid payments.

"People of working age have to work, that's expected," Professor Mead said. The reform also had a "generous side" - wage subsidies, child care and health care.

The reform had resulted in people moving from benefits to work, falling poverty levels, "mostly" positive effects on families and children and a falling teenage pregnancy rate.

Dr Newman wants New Zealand to look to countries such as the United States and reform the welfare system.

She believes that if everyone on welfare reapplied for their benefit so their eligibility and needs could be reassessed, benefit numbers could be reduced by 25 per cent as the fraudulent are weeded out.