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 parent for over 65 years.
Our goal has always been to nurture resilient and inspired tamariki and whānau. We work for the whole family to facilitate the growth of confidence, development of living skills and a sense of self-help within the family unit and its individual members.
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. Since then, we have expanded our services to support all families led by one person.
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:
Birthright was 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 was that ‘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.
In its early years, in addition to providing a caring support team to help and listen, Birthright received requests for material help, such as clothing, household items, food, accommodation, transport and financial assistance including budgeting advice. In 1958 the organisation 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.
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 rights of unmarried mothers were raised at its annual conference. Members eventually agreed that, as a matter of policy, branch societies should help this type of family.
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.
In 1973 whānau 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 and male single parents would be placed on the same basis as widows. When the Bill was introduced, the Royal Commission noted that children should not be disadvantaged by changes to the family – a point that is a strong part of our philosophy.
Logo of Birthright during the 1980s, developed with Māori principles in mind
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 1987, George Byrant, Vice President of Birthright New Zealand, 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.
While the proportion of sole mothers in employment had been declining continuously since the 1970s, employment rates had been increasing for partnered mothers. This meant that rather than single mothers ‘belonging and participating’ in the community, 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.
During the 2000s, Birthright saw blended families become more common, which in turn created quite different 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 whānau, 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.