Despite families being much smaller, parents being older, mothers being better educated and having much higher employment rates, child poverty has risen significantly since the 1960s. In 1961, 95 percent of children were born to married couples; by 2015 the proportion had fallen to 53 percent. For Maori, 72 percent of births were to married parents in 1968; by 2015 the proportion had fallen to just 21 percent. In 2015, 27 percent of registered births were to cohabiting parents. The risk of parental separation by the time the child is aged five is, however, 4-6 times greater than for married parents. Cohabiting relationships are becoming less stable over time. Cohabiting parents are financially poorer than married parents. They form an interim group between married and single parent families.
Single parent families make up 28 percent of all families with dependent children. These families are the poorest in New Zealand. 51% of children in poverty live in single parent families. Single parents have the lowest home ownership rates and the highest debt ratios. Children in sole parent families are often exposed to persistent poverty and constrained upward mobility. Of registered births in 2015, 5% had no recorded father details and a further 15% had fathers living at a different home address to the mother. Of all babies born in 2015, 17.5% (10,697) were reliant on a main benefit by the end of their birth year, over two thirds on a single parent benefit. Over half had Maori parents/caregivers.The higher poverty rates for Maori and Pasifika children are reflected in the greater number of sole parent and cohabiting families.
Rapidly changing family structure has contributed significantly to increasing income inequality. Child poverty is consistently blamed on unemployment, low wages, high housing costs and inadequate social security benefits. Little attention has been given to family structure. Despite marriage being the best protector against child poverty it has become politically unfashionable – some argue insensitive – to express such a view. But if there is to be any political will to solve child poverty the issue has to be confronted.