Poverty Reduction and Welfare Provision for Single Parents in Aotearoa/ New Zealand and the United States

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Poverty Reduction and Welfare Provision for Single Parents in Aotearoa/ New Zealand and the United States - A Comparative Analysis


In 1999, UNICEF reported that countries which have the most generous welfare provision, have the lowest rates of child poverty and that children who live in sole parent families are more likely to live in poverty (Bradbury & Jantti, 1999). This paper will look at child poverty in New Zealand and the United States and at welfare provision for single parents. It will examine current global discourses around poverty reduction and whether this goal is likely to be achieved under these welfare programmes.

BACKGROUND – The Rise in Single Parents Since the 1960’s

After 1900, liberal economic governance and ‘industrialization’ in both the US and New Zealand eroded the extended family in favour of a male breadwinner, ‘nuclear’ family as a mobile, flexible, cost effective work unit (Hale, 1990). Following the civil rights movements of the 1960’s it also became increasingly unacceptable for male breadwinners to have sole access to the labour market or to dominate family units and women willingly and unwillingly joined the workforce. To achieve pay equity they needed to be equally mobile and flexible. Nuclear family units have deconstructed in a myriad of ways under increasingly malleable social and labour market conditions. Separation and divorce rates have risen as have out-of-wedlock births (Ellwood & Jencks, 2004). Consequently, increasing numbers of women raise children alone.

In 2004 there were 73 million children (under 18) in the US, a quarter of the total population (US Gov Forum. 2006) and approximately 1 million in New Zealand (Stats NZ. 2006). Single parent families made up 29 % of families with children under 18 in both countries. (Statistics NZ. 2001. Simmons and O‘Neill, 2001. P4)

Current demographic trends suggest that single parent families with children will increase to 36% of all families with children in NZ by 2021 (Statistics NZ, 2004). Between 1990 and 2000, single parent, female headed families increased in the US from 6 to 7.6 million households, an increase of 26%. Some argue that this trend is associated with easy access to welfare but since the 1970’s, (in both countries) cash assistance from welfare benefits has diminished but the number of female headed single families have increased (Fitzgerald & Ribar, 2004). It is likely that increasing single parenthood occurs as a result of a myriad of social complexities including greater choice and freedom for women and their participation in the labour market.


US (2000)New Zealand(2001)
No. of Households with children under 1834,800,000479,000
Percentage of these Households headed by single parent families22.5%24% Percentage of Households headed by single parent males with children under 186.5%5%

(Statistics NZ. 2001. Simmons and O‘Neill, 2001. P4)

Global Discourse on Child Poverty

The wellbeing of children is a key yardstick for measuring national development. Indeed, the ultimate criterion for gauging the integrity of society…is the way it treats children, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable ones.

(UNICEF, 2000. p7)

UNICEF’s International Child Development Centre (Innocenti Research Centre) has commissioned a number of reports on child poverty in developed countries. It aims to develop a new global ethic for children and promotes the effective implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in both developing and industrialized countries (Innocenti Website, 2007). In order to do cross national comparisons, UNICEF uses a poverty threshold of 50% of the national median income.

Child Poverty Across Industrialised Nations (Bradbury & Jantti, 1999), finds that:

across the industrial world, that English speaking countries have higher rates of child poverty •countries with high national income tend to have...
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