Forcing Wanganui parents on benefits to enrol their children in early childhood care won't work, a child poverty spokeswoman says.
In what has been described as a world first, new government policy will halve parents' benefits if their children don't attend preschool from the age of 3.
The decision, announced by Social Development Minister Paula Bennett last week, will apply from July to 31,500 children aged 3 and 4, whose parents are either on sole-parent or couple benefits.
"I do not believe that we're going to improve child health outcomes just by putting a stick in place to make people do things when there's a whole complex reason why they don't access services," Child Poverty Action Group health spokeswoman Nikki Turner said.
"You've got to be really clear that the people were able to access the services in the first place."
Ms Turner warned accessibility to early child education (ECE) was "piecemeal" in some rural areas.
"They're not universally distributed around the country, they're not accessible to everybody."
Parents will have their benefits halved if they fail to take "all reasonable steps" to keep their children in licensed or certificated early education for at least 15 hours a week from the time they turn 3 until they go to school.
The policy has been labelled "beneficiary bashing" and criticised for removing parental choice. It was unveiled along with new Social Development Ministry figures showing the country's beneficiaries would cost taxpayers $78billion if they stayed on benefits for life.
A Cabinet paper estimates 2200 beneficiary families might fail the test each year, of which 1300 might fail to comply immediately and have their benefits cut.
Auckland University sociologist and welfare reform expert Maureen Baker said she had not heard of other countries tying benefits to preschool attendance.
Maxim Institute researcher Dr Jane Silloway Smith said beneficiaries should seek work in return for income support, but making them hand over their children would undermine families.
"Families know their children best."
Childcare Association chief executive Nancy Bell warned of a shortage of ECE services in poor and rural areas, where many affected families would be based.
But Grace Ikiua, of Mangere's Good Seed Trust, welcomed the policy and said preschool playgroups could meet the need in existing buildings.
"There's a group of people that don't really understand the importance of ECE for their children. They have a responsibility to the taxpayer. They are on a benefit to bring up their children and sometimes you have to use a stick."
By the numbers
5298 people on a benefit in the Wanganui district as of June 30.
Beneficiary parents must ensure their children:
Attend early childhood education 15 hours a week from age 3.
Attend school from age 5 or 6.
Enrol with a general practitioner.