Social Issues

NZ continues to fail its youngest citizens

Child wellbeing experts and advocates say New Zealand cannot hold its head up in the international community while it continues to fail its children. Laura Walters reports

New Zealand has again been singled out as one of the worst countries in the rich world to be a child.

The annual UNICEF Innocenti Report Card on child wellbeing has ranked New Zealand 35 out of 41 EU and OECD countries.

Based on indicators used in the report, Chile, Bulgaria and the United States ranked as the worst places to be a child, while the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway ranked as the best.   

“Many of the world’s richest countries – which have the resources they need to provide good childhoods for all – are failing children,” said Gunilla Olsson, Director of UNICEF Innocenti, who compiled the report.

“Unless governments take rapid and decisive action to protect child wellbeing as part of their pandemic responses, we can continue to expect soaring child poverty rates, deteriorating mental and physical health, and a deepening skill divide among children.” 

The report uses the most recent comparable data across the group of high-income countries to evaluate child wellbeing, looking at a range of indicators of physical and mental health, wellbeing and skills.

New Zealand scores consistently poorly across all of the indicators, and has done so now for a number of years. This shows a trend of poor child wellbeing and health in New Zealand, especially for the country’s most vulnerable kids, who are disproportionately likely to be Māori or Pasifika.

The UNICEF report shows New Zealand has the second highest obesity rate in the OECD. More than one in three children, aged five to 19, are obese or overweight (39 percent). The only country to score worse is the United States, with 42 percent of adolescents obese or overweight.

Meanwhile only 64.6 percent of 15 year olds have basic proficiency in reading and maths. Just ahead of the average of 62.3 percent.

And New Zealand’s youth suicide rate is the second worst in the developed world at 14.9 deaths per 100,000 adolescents. This rate is more than twice the average among the 41 OECD countries surveyed (6.5 deaths per 100,000 adolescents). 

“It is time to be alarmed and activated about the inequality of opportunity, health and wellbeing in NZ."

This report references the most recent and comparable data across the 41 countries. But it’s important to note that because the data is complex, the most recent comparable data wasn’t necessarily the data most recently released.

For instance, New Zealand’s youth suicide numbers fell over the past year, according to statistics released last month. The figures from the Coroner’s Office show deaths among those in the 15-19 age range were down from 73 to 59, and in the 20-24 age range were down from 91 to 60. These latest figures were not captured by this research.

However, experts say the report paints an accurate picture of Kiwi kids suffering from poor mental and physical health outcomes, and falling behind in educational achievement.

Covid-19 has highlighted the inadequacies in the country’s systems, which have been fuelled poverty and inequality for many years.

The pandemic has shown even those who would have been considered ‘middle-class’ New Zealanders have no more than a few weeks’ buffer between financial independence and the need for government assistance. Not to mention those who were already struggling to survive week-to-week.

And things are only expected to get worse as wage subsidy schemes run out, and New Zealand feels the full economic impacts of the pandemic.

UNICEF NZ executive director Vivien Maidaborn said this was a woeful result.

“It is time to be alarmed and activated about the inequality of opportunity, health and wellbeing in NZ."

“For some years this report has told a consistent, unpalatable and deeply embarrassing story of child disadvantage in New Zealand, one which makes it impossible for us to hold our heads up high in the international community.”

This is not the first time Newsroom has reported on the dire situation facing a portion of Kiwi kids. Last year’s UNICEF Innocenti report highlighted education inequality, with a focus on the gap between the country’s top and bottom achievers.

Again, Māori and Pasifika children were all too frequently the ones left behind in the classroom - largely a symptom of colonisation, and a 200-year-old homogenous education system, which focuses on white and European values.

Inequities across health have been the subject of a recent Waitangi Tribunal inquiry, and Parliamentary Select Committee inquiries. Unsurprisingly, these inquiries and a raft of reports have found severe inequities in the health system. Again, Māori and Pasifika families are significantly impacted.

Child uplift practices at Oranga Tamariki, which Newsroom has reported on extensively, are yet another shocking example of how the state is failing the country’s most vulnerable children, who are disproportionately Māori.

While education and health inequities across the country are obvious and well-reported. This report shows how alarming, and urgent, the situation is.

Experts say these results are fundamentally driven by New Zealand’s high rates of child poverty, coupled with poor housing conditions.

On top of the results included in the UNICEF report card, a consistent set of New Zealand statistics and reports reinforce these concerning trends.

In the 2016 financial year 22 percent of children aged 0–15 lived in households reporting that food ran out often or sometimes.

In the 2019 financial year, the rate of potentially avoidable hospitalisations was 59 per 1000 children aged under 16.

Last year, only 59 percent of students aged 6–16 attended school regularly - an issue that has become more profound due to Covid-19 and the shutting of schools during lockdowns.

And 8 percent of New Zealand children live in mouldy or damp homes.

Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft said all of these statistics, including those in the latest report, were harsh reminders “that the tentacles of child poverty reach out into all areas of a child's life”. 

The latest Innocenti report provided a profound wake-up call for New Zealanders, and spoke to the significant consequences of child poverty, he said.

“What stands out starkly in New Zealand is the extent of the gap between children who thrive and those who struggle. It is a significant divide, almost a bifurcation.”

However the Children’s Commissioner was not surprised by the results.

“For some years this report has told a consistent, unpalatable and deeply embarrassing story of child disadvantage in New Zealand, one which makes it impossible for us to hold our heads up high in the international community.”

The health, wellbeing and education outcomes highlighted in the UNICEF report existed in the context of New Zealand’s wellbeing paradox.

Generally speaking, 70 percent of New Zealand's 1.14 million children did well and thrived in conditions of relative affluence, Becroft said.

However, 20 percent live in conditions of genuine material disadvantage and experience difficult living situations. And 10 percent exist in chronic, profound, generational disadvantage.  

“What stands out starkly in New Zealand is the extent of the gap between children who thrive and those who struggle. It is a significant divide, almost a bifurcation.”

The New Zealand of today day was not the New Zealand that many of his generation grew up in, in the 1960s and 70s, Becroft said. 

For a large group of New Zealand's children and young people there was now more stratification, marginalisation and alienation. 

“This is utterly unacceptable.”

Like Becroft, UNICEF’s Maidaborn pointed to the long-term trends of inequality and poverty, these results spoke to.

Knowing that only 65 percent of 15 year-olds couldn’t read or complete basic mathematical equations was an “incredibly scary indicator of a much wider problem”, she said.

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s high suicide rate was influenced by a constellation of other factors, such as colonisation, the bias of teachers in schools which exclude children, socio-economic background, poverty, cultural influences and inequality.

Maidaborn said some New Zealanders rolled their eyes when reports like this were published - they’d been talking about the same issues for the past 40 years and nothing had changed;  while others were living the reality of these statistics.

Others had no idea there was such a large gap between the haves and the have nots. And many underestimated the number of children - at least 150,000 - who were doing it really tough.

Even this disconnect between those who were confronted with this reality on a daily basis, and those who were unaware of the scale of the problem, was a representation of inequality in society.

Maidaborn said the international community was shocked by New Zealand’s data on poverty, family violence, education inequality and child deaths.

“Because we’ve successfully sold the brand that we are pure. That we are clean and green, and our brand is pure.”

“We are now talking a good game in New Zealand, but we are still waiting to see demonstrable improvement.”

Despite this government making a point of prioritising child poverty, and the prime minister saying it was her goal to make New Zealand the best place in the world to be a child, these poor outcomes persisted.

Maidaborn said she didn’t doubt Jacinda Ardern’s commitment, but both she and Becroft said it took fundamental change to turn the tide on poverty.

And thus far, Ardern had failed to convince her coalition partner, and the wider public, that radical change was needed.

Both Maidaborn and Becroft pointed to the Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s recommendations.

The commissioner said benefit levels - which were never restored after the ‘Mother of all Budgets’ - were at the heart of the country’s poverty and inequality problems.

While the advisory group recommended a $70 a week increase, the best the Government has done so far is a $28 a week rise, during Covid.

“It’s an incredible failure of this coalition government that they could not implement the recommendations of the Welfare Expert Advisory group,” Maidaborn said.

“But it’s got to come back to how prepared are we to keep failing our children to this extent?”

Other than raising benefits, Maidaborn pointed to other levers governments had in their toolkit.

Including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in every policy the government wrote would be an immediate, and cost-effective way to start addressing child poverty, she said.

“UNICEF is urging the government to listen carefully to the perspectives of children and young people, and to hear what they have to say about wellbeing. 

But, also, to do more than listen: to invest in the solutions and approaches that young people want.”

New Zealanders needed to reimagine Aotearoa by heeding the advice from child rights experts – and especially Māori leaders and academics – in order to make New Zealand the best country in the world to be a child, she said.

Becroft said everyone involved in children's issues in New Zealand had been heartened by both the child poverty reduction legislation, which received cross-party support, and the world-leading Child and Youth Well-Being Strategy. 

But it was too early to see the results of these initiatives.

“We are now talking a good game in New Zealand, but we are still waiting to see demonstrable improvement.”

“The issues raised in the report capture some of  New Zealand’s most significant intergenerational wellbeing challenges.”

Chris Hipkins, minister of both health and education, said the Government had been making progress for the past few years, most of which was not captured by the UNICEF Innocenti report card.

Reducing child poverty and improving child wellbeing was a priority for this government from the outset, but those in charge had always been upfront that it would take time to fix, Hipkins said.

“The issues raised in the report capture some of  New Zealand’s most significant intergenerational wellbeing challenges.”

Hipkins said initiatives like the $5.5 billion Families Package, which lifted the incomes of 384,000 families by an average of $65 a week; the lunches in schools programme; improving the rates of immunisation; and making period products available in public schools would all contribute to better outcomes for some of the country’s most vulnerable young people. 

And the establishment of a Suicide Prevention Office, supported by a significant investment in mental health in the 2019 Wellbeing Budget, would also make a difference, he said.

The minister also acknowledged Covid-19 had pushed many of the inequities in New Zealand society to the forefront. 

The lockdown has caused significant disruption, especially to school-aged children. 

The Government had rolled out a distance learning package in the hopes of mitigating some of the impacts, but efforts were now focussed on raising attendance and getting kids back into school.

Attendance was dropping prior to Covid, but schools and experts have been particularly concerned that a group of children have not engaged in school since New Zealand's first lockdown in March.

The race is on to get those kids back in the classroom so they didn't fall any further behind, and to make sure they had the support of their school and school community during a time of high financial stress and general anxiety.

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