Family support, women and employment
The Labour government elected in 1984 restructured many aspects of the state but family welfare did not undergo major changes. However, payments to families were increased through a means-tested per-child weekly tax credit called ‘family support’. It was paid in addition to the $6 a week universal family-benefit payment, which had significantly declined in value relative to average weekly earnings. New parental leave and employment equity legislation was introduced, but the Employment Equity Act 1990 was repealed when a National government was elected later that year.
Women increased as a percentage of the paid labour force. While some women were employed in well-paid professional and managerial jobs, others tended to move in and out of paid work and rely heavily on part-time work. Women were concentrated in lower-paid and lower-status occupations. After the birth of their children, many women withdrew from the labour force for some years. Employed Pākehā women were better off than Māori and Pacific Island women. Domestic responsibilities on top of paid work reduced the rewards associated with paid work for many working mothers.
More commercial childcare centres opened in the 1990s as more mothers entered the workforce. Private centres and community-based centres were regulated by the government and received fee subsidies for low-income children.
1991 benefit cuts
In 1991 the National government cut the level of most benefits, including the DPB. Several amendments were also made to DPB eligibility rules, including:
- increasing the qualifying age to 18 in 1991
- introducing new employment expectations after 1995
- a new abatement scheme, which changed the amount deducted from a benefit if the beneficiary earns any other money, in 1996
- enforcing new work tests after 1997.
Hearts for the heartless
The Coalition Against Benefit Cuts presented government agencies in Christchurch with ox hearts on the first anniversary of the 1991 benefit cuts to protest against the government’s ‘heartless’ policies. A manager at the Methodist Central mission said that about 10,000 people would rely on Christchurch food banks that Christmas, three-quarters of them children.
In 1991 universal family benefit payments were incorporated into means-tested family support tax credits. In 1996 a $15 child tax credit was introduced, but was only available to parents in paid work. Although other liberal states such as Canada also changed their family support programmes at this time, the changes in New Zealand were particularly swift and severe. They were less generous and more targeted to low-income families in paid work (rather than beneficiaries) than either the UK or Australia.
The code of social and family responsibility
In 1998 the National-led government initiated a public discussion document called ‘Towards a code of social and family responsibility’.1 The proposed code included best practices for childcare, health, money management and employment, and focused on responsibilities within households. The document did not discuss unpaid caring work within the family or alternative ways of providing this care.
The proposed code generated enthusiasm from some employers’ groups, was denounced by the New Zealand Council of Social Services, and received little support in opinion polls. While a formal code was never introduced, the focus on family rather than state responsibility may have reduced expectations about state support. At the same time the National government encouraged the public to report neighbours and associates they suspected might be defrauding the welfare system.
The community wage, benefits and waged work
In 1998 the government announced a change in welfare direction. The unemployment benefit was renamed the ‘community wage’ and beneficiaries were required to be available for community work. The sickness benefit was reduced to the same level as the unemployment benefit. Domestic purposes and widows’ beneficiaries whose youngest child reached 14 years were expected to actively seek full-time work. When the youngest child was six to 13 years, the beneficiary was required to look for part-time work. Beneficiaries with children under six years were interviewed annually by welfare officials about future employment prospects.
To encourage parental employment, more childcare services were promised and the child-care subsidy was expanded for low-income families with school-aged children. The government also promised to extend employment leave for parents with sick children. These work-related reforms were treated as ‘urgent’ and pushed through Parliament with little public discussion. They were applauded by business groups but were opposed by the political left and some members of the ruling National Party. Opponents argued that mothers with sole responsibility for children should not be compelled to find paid work.