Finding the will to heal child poverty

Child poverty continues because, as a society, we allow it to continue, writes the University of Auckland's Michael O'Brien

Child poverty is regularly identified as one of the most important issues facing this country. Indeed, in some polls it tops the list. This is not surprising given the extent of the problem – the numbers are significant irrespective of how it is measured.

Benefit increases in the last budget will make some difference, but they won’t reduce the level of child poverty because those below the poverty line are so far below that the increase will not bring them up to meet it.

As a country we have done well preventing poverty among older people. Our poverty rate for those over 65 is among the lowest in the world. But the child poverty rate is high when we compare New Zealand with similar countries. So, why have we treated our children so badly, and indeed why do we continue to do so? More importantly, how do we change this so that child poverty receives the political and public attention and action that it requires?

A simple answer to the questions above is that children don’t vote while older people have a comparatively high voting rate. This, however, is too simple. After all, parents have a vote and many older people are very concerned about our child poverty rates and the effects poverty is having on their grandchildren and the wider community. Rightly, we accept a public responsibility to ensure older people have enough income to ensure an acceptable standard of living and enough money to provide for themselves.

The same public responsibility needs to be extended to children and families.

Too often a range of arguments are made about families/parents making poor choices which, it is claimed, result in children living in poverty. We don’t worry about the choices older people make – the income is provided irrespective of their other resources, but we apply quite different rules to children and families.

Benefit rates are much lower than national superannuation rates and are not adjusted as regularly. The real value of tax credits, an important support for families in work and on low wages or with an inadequate income, have been steadily weakened by adjustments and changes to the rules surrounding the effects of earnings on Working for Families payments. And this says nothing about how Working for Families payment rates discriminate against those not in paid work.

We should applaud how well we have done in providing for older people and extend the same approach to families and children. Imagine if we started by asking: what do children need to be well fed, adequately housed, with access to good health services and good education, and have sufficient income to allow them to take a full part in recreational and cultural activities along with their peers?

Then we might move on to ask: what can families do, and how much support can we as a society give, to ensure all children have the opportunity to both develop their abilities and contribute to New Zealand society as fully as possible?

Only a minute number of families fail to put their children’s interests at the top of their priority list, but somehow we assume and argue that child poverty comes from parental failings and inadequacies. It doesn’t. It happens because as a society we do not put enough value on supporting children and their families.

Looking around the world, those societies which provide good support for families and children – Scandinavia and many of the European countries – regularly have the best results on different international league tables. This is no accident; it reflects the value and importance they attach to giving good support for all children.

We could match those countries if there were a strong enough will and commitment to making children’s wellbeing our first priority. Child poverty continues because, as a society, we allow it to continue. It is long past time for us to demand that this change, and to make this demand of our politicians, of one another and of ourselves.

As Dame Ann Salmond said a number of years ago, a society that does not provide and care well for its children has a death wish. 

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