Forty years on - Birthright in the 1990s
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.