From our early beginnings in 1955, Birthright has grown into a national registered charity with affiliated organisations around New Zealand.
We are New Zealand’s only social services organisation that has a specialist focus on families led by one person and we have been supporting families led by one person for over 60 years.
The first Birthright Society was formed in Hastings on 23 November 1955 by Peter Gifford and the
Hastings Junior Chamber of Commerce. Mr Gifford's aim was to form a voluntary organisation to
support and care for the children of women who had lost their husbands. Over time the
circumstances of those who found they were parenting alone broadened so we expanded our
services to support all families led by one person.
The term “families led by one person” was adopted to encompass the broad range of people who
may find themselves parenting alone, e.g. parent, grandparent, another whanau member, etc.
Today, Birthright comprises of a National Office, Birthright New Zealand, and 11 affiliate
organisations around the country.
Birthright through the years
Read more about our history and Birthright today:
1950s New Zealand was enjoying an economic boom after the Great Depression and the Second World War. The welfare system was well in place and developing, jobs were plentiful, the nuclear family was still regarded as the ‘ideal’ social grouping, adoptions were common while abortions were few, and marriage breakdowns were the exception rather than the rule.
However, support and financial assistance for one parent families was quite limited. Since 1911, the Widows’ Pension had, to some extent, provided for one parent families without other means of support, although it was subject to means testing. Later, in 1926 a family allowance was introduced, which was also subject to means testing. In 1936 deserted wives with children could apply for the Widows’ Pension, provided they had taken maintenance proceedings against their husbands and were not divorced.
In 1938, employed unmarried pregnant women became eligible for an emergency sickness benefit for a limited period and after giving birth, on the grounds they were temporarily incapacitated for work. By the mid-1950s, around one in five children were kept and raised by their unmarried mothers.
In 1946, the family benefit had been increased and made available for all children up to the age of sixteen, or up to the age of eighteen in certain circumstances. By 1959, it had increased again and, because this benefit was normally paid to the mother, many women gained their first ever independent source of household income through this form of assistance. However, these universal family benefit payments would begin to decrease considerably in the 1980s and would disappear completely by the 1990s.
1955 saw the first Birthright established in Hastings in 1955, with the aim of helping the children whose mothers were on their own due to separation, desertion, divorce or death of a spouse. The philosophy behind this new organisation was ‘every child is entitled to a birthright’ - regardless of whether they had two parents or not.
Not only was this the first organisation of its kind in New Zealand, it was also the first in the world. The idea of an organisation like Birthright was discussed at the world congress of the Junior Chambers of Commerce in Edinburgh in 1955, where the New Zealand delegation urged others to help make it an international project.
In its early years, in addition to providing a caring support person to help and listen, Birthright most commonly received requests for material help, such as clothing, household items, food, accommodation, transport and financial assistance including budgeting advice. It also hosted coffee mornings and provided trips, holidays and camps for children who otherwise would not get the chance to experience a break away from home.
In 1958 the Dunedin Jaycee Convention resolved to sponsor a national body, Birthright New Zealand, and this came to pass in 1961. By the end of the decade, in addition to the original Hastings branch, Birthright was up and running in Southland, Waikato, Otago, Wellington, Napier, Marlborough, Northland, New Plymouth and Nelson.
Today Birthright has 14 member organisations operating around the country offering social services for children and families, especially those families led by one person.
The types of one-parent families within New Zealand expanded rapidly in the 1960s. Changing social attitudes saw the annual number of unmarried women raising their child in a sole parent situation rise by 80% between 1963 and 1967 while the number of legally separated and divorced women rose by 49% between 1966 and 1971.
1961 saw the birth rate explode in New Zealand, with more than 65,000 babies born that year alone. The rate of unmarried mothers giving birth also doubled this year, from 12 in every 1000 women of childbearing age in 1945 to 24 per 1000. By 1962 this rate was 31.2 per 1000 women, eventually peaking at 44.4 per 1000 in 1971.
At Birthright’s first annual general meeting, held in Wellington in 1962, the President noted that there was an increasing awareness among the public of the existence of the organisation, and of how real and genuine the need within the community was for the type of assistance being given by its branches.
In 1966, eleven years after Birthright began, the tricky issue of unmarried mothers was tackled at its annual conference. Members eventually agreed that, as a matter of policy, branch societies could help this type of family if they wanted to but, as they did not come strictly under the rules of the Society, these families would not qualify for the distribution of grants from the national level. This issue would come up again at a national level in the 1970s.
By the end of the 1960s, the Status of Children Act had ended legal discrimination between children born within and outside registered marriage, removing the term ‘illegitimate’ from the statute books.
The social and economic changes during the 1970s saw a significant rise in non-widowed, one parent families. In 1971, 5% of all households were one parent families, while births to unmarried mothers had peaked at 44.4 per 1000 women of childbearing age, up from 31.2 per 1000 in 1962. This decade also saw the rapid growth in the uptake of the brand new benefit for sole parents – the Domestic Purposes Benefit (DPB).
In 1973 one-parent families received a substantial boost with the introduction of the Social Security Amendment Bill, which introduced the Domestic Purposes Benefit. This meant that - for the first time in New Zealand’s history - separated and unmarried mothers, prisoners’ wives, and male single parents would be placed on the same basis as widows. When the Bill was introduced the Royal Commission on Social Security noted that children should not be disadvantaged by changing family patterns – a point that underpins Birthright’s philosophy.
By 1975, 1.5% of all those receiving the DPB were male. Interestingly, New Zealand’s birth rate actually fell during the period following the introduction of the DPB, from 44 per 1000 women of childbearing age in 1971 to 37 per 1000 in 1976. Birth rates among teenage single women also declined gradually over the 1970s, from 33 per 1000 in 1972 to a low point of 25 per 1000 in 1984.
Just prior to this, in 1972, the issue of whether or not Birthright should be supporting unmarried mothers came up at the national conference once more, following the original debate in the 1960s. The Executive decided this type of family should be referred to organisations established especially for that purpose. However, and despite some branch opposition, a remit to admit unmarried mothers was passed at the national AGM in 1973 - due in part because many Birthright branches had been unofficially counselling and helping this type of family for years already.
In 1975 the Government announced the policy of increasing benefits at regular intervals to compensate beneficiaries for the increased cost of living. Further to this, the Government also announced an accommodation allowance of up to one week and extra assistance of $4 per week - although Birthright was disappointed that the Government failed to increase benefits for the 3rd and any further child to bring them in line with the first two children.
Between 1968 and 1976 the number of children kept by unmarried mothers was 20,908, while the number of unmarried DPB recipients as at March 1977 was 5,493, indicating that many single mothers were not applying for the benefit, or that those who did were not reliant on it for very long.
However, in 1977, the Government voted to cut back the DPB for an initial period for separated and divorced mothers in an effort to reduce the apparent increase in family break-ups - despite Birthright members arguing that this would only increase the stress in these families with detriment to the children.
In his 1964 annual report, the President of Birthright Auckland had remarked: ‘It is a matter of increasing wonderment to us all that in a community and a welfare state such as ours there should be so many who need help” – twenty years later the same message applied.
In 1985 the universal payment of the Family Benefit was abolished to target families most in need, while Family Benefit capitalisation limits for first-home seekers were increased. A new family support benefit (introduced as the family care benefit in 1984) raised the incomes of some poor families. Then in 1986 the guaranteed minimum family benefit was introduced.
This fixed an income floor above the statutory minimum wage for persons with dependent children in full-time employment. Known as the Guaranteed Minimum Family Income, it guaranteed working families roughly 80% of the average post-tax wage, although its impact on participation rates was limited by rising unemployment and high effective marginal tax rates. The Family Benefit would finally be abolished in the 1990s.
By 1986, 7% of households were one-parent family households and 16% of dependent children lived in one-parent families. These families were hit hard when, between April 1986 and April 1991, the Government introduced another major set of benefit reforms, reducing the real benefit rate for a sole parent with one child by 24% - and bringing it back to the level it was in the early 1960s.
By 1987, 6% of all those receiving the DPB were male – up from 1.5% in 1975. Meanwhile, birth rates among teenage single women had been declining gradually since the 1970s, from 33 per 1000 in 1972 to a low point of 25 per 1000 in 1984.
In 1987, the President of Napier Birthright wrote: ‘Because of current high employment and the consequent unstable social climate, the need for an organisation such as ours is becoming more and more necessary.’ By the end of the 1980s all Birthright branches were noting a continuing increase in requests for assistance.
During this era, a typical Birthright family was described as:
‘A relatively young mother with three children under the age of twelve. They would be living in a rented, cold house, separated from the father and husband, who is more than likely in some other relationship somewhere. Their sole source of income is the Domestic Purposes Benefit. They would have no transport and only very basic furniture. They would be left with considerable debts by the absent father. The mother would be suffering from depression and a gross lack of confidence. If measured by any definition of poverty, this family would fall well within that definition. Feelings of isolation, and sometimes of persecution, would be evident. Legal or medical problems may be additional burdens.’ (G. Bryant, 1988)
The 1990s began with one of the Government’s most radical reforms in the history of state housing: the removal of income-related rents and the establishment of a government accommodation supplement. For hundreds of state house tenants, the impacts of the reforms would prove to be detrimental.
The demand for Birthright’s services continued to increase during this decade. On 1 April 1991, Family benefits were abolished, though they would be partly replaced by more targeted allowances for low-income families in the form of Family Support until the Working for Families package was introduced in 2004.
The proportion of women aged 16-59 receiving the DPB had risen from 2.5% in 1976 to 8.4% in 1991, remaining around the same level by 1996 at 8.6%. The number of one parent families receiving the DPB had also grown, from 60% in 1976 to 93% in 1991, then declining slightly in 1996 to 86%. Children with a parent receiving the DPB had increased from 4% of all children under 18 in 1976 to 17% in 1991, to 19% by 1996. One in eight children were living in a one-parent family with their fathers.
Between the early 1980s to the late 1990s the high levels of unemployment, which peaked at 11% in 1992 and were still high at 6% in 1996, contributed to the increased number of families with children on benefits, creating an adverse environment for the employment of sole parents.
While the proportion of sole mothers in employment had been declining continuously since the 1970s, down from 40% in 1976 to 27% in 1991, in contrast, employment rates had been increasing for partnered mothers. This meant that rather than single mothers ‘belonging and participating’ in the community, which is what the Royal Commission on Social Security had intended when the DPB had been introduced in 1973, these women had instead become increasingly distanced from mainstream women in New Zealand.
In 1997, the Government introduced a new policy requiring recipients of the DPB or a widow’s benefit, who either had no children or whose youngest child was aged 14 or over, to seek part-time employment, training or education. Sanctions applied to those who did not comply with these requirements.
The Government’s housing reform caused the demand for emergency housing to spike while hundreds of state houses remained untenanted. Many families were unable to afford market rents and moved in with friends and relatives, often in overcrowded and unhealthy conditions.
Relief for these families finally came in 1999, when the newly-elected Government scrapped the market rents policy and reinstated income-related rents to ensure state house tenants paid no more than 25% of their total income in rent.
The 2000s saw many changes in family types and make-up, including a steady rise in one-parent families, decreasing marriage rates and greater ethnic diversity, with around 1 in 5 New Zealand children born with two or more ethnicities.
In 2001, the proportion of women more likely to be single parents also differed significantly according to ethnic group and age. For example, Maori (41%) and Pacific (29%) children were more likely to be living as part of a one parent family, while European (17%) and Asian (12%) children were least likely to be living in this type of family.
Marriage rates, which had peaked in 1971, continued to decline. For example, in 2001, 36% of women aged 30-34 years and 22% of women aged 35-39 years had never married compared to around 5% of the same age range in 1971.
In 2004, the Government introduced the Working for Families package, which commenced operating on 1 April 2005 and included tax credits, childcare assistance and accommodation supplement payments.
This would replace the system known as Family Support, as well as the child components of the main social welfare benefits. The Guaranteed Minimum Family Income was renamed the Minimum Family Tax Credit and the level of support was changed to encourage working families to leave the benefit system.
In 2006, 44% of divorces involved families with children, a drop from 50% in 1996. Ten per cent of all households were headed by solo parents, the majority women, compared with 9.5% in 1996, 7% in 1986 and 5% in 1971.
During this decade, Birthright saw step and blended families become more common, which in turn created quite complex living arrangements for many children. This resulted in existing policies, laws and social norms being challenged and adapted to support these new and diverse family configurations.
By the end of the decade, the provision of financial assistance for one parent families was in place, as was the requirement for absent parents to financially contribute to the parenting of their children, and labour market policies had been introduced to support mothers and fathers in the dual role of worker and parent.
Today, children grow up in families that are increasingly diverse, ranging from traditional families with two biological parents, blended families, one parent families, children raised by wider whanau, and shared parenting arrangements where parents have separated or divorced.
One parent families contribute approximately 10% of growth in the number of families in New Zealand. Statistics New Zealand predict that this type of family will increase from 230,000 in 2013 to 265,000 in 2038, which is an average growth of 0.6% per year.
Further to this, the number of male single parents is predicted to increase at a faster rate than female single parents: 18% of one parent families consisted of male single parents in 2013, while 22% are estimated to consist of male single parents in 2038. In 2013, approximately 72% (166,000) of one parent families included dependent children.
Around 69% of one-parent families with at least one child under 18 years of age were European, while 39% were Maori, 16% Pacific and less than 10% Asian. The majority of parents were aged between 40 and 44 and more than a third of these families were living with other families or individuals. Most (54%) had an income below 60% of the medium family income and 75% spent more than 25% of their incomes on mortgages or rents.
Statistically, one-parent families in the 2010s have comparatively low wellbeing compared with other family types. Financial stress and housing problems are a reality for many and there are comparatively higher incidences of mental health issues such as depression.
On the positive side, many enjoy good family and extended family interactions, and good physical health and many children from families led by one person flourish and succeed.
Despite all the economic, political and societal changes that New Zealand families have experienced throughout the decades, Birthright believes the core functions of a family remain constant: to provide children with a good start in life, support and resilience in times of crisis, and the opportunity to reach their full potential.