Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Free breakfast as poverty solution? It's a joke

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

It's perhaps churlish to note how convenient it was for Prime Minister John Key that the unveiling of his big schools breakfast package just happened to coincide with the Child Poverty Action Group's case in the Court of Appeal on behalf of the 230,000 poor children excluded from the Government's $60-a-week child poverty assistance grant.

For days beforehand, the Government was leaking trails of milk and Weet-Bix to whet the media appetite, hinting at its leadership role alongside private companies such as Fonterra and Sanitarium in the battle against child poverty.

In the end, the Government's contribution is a parsimonious $2 million a year for the next five.

Hungry school kids are hardly a new issue. In 2002, a Ministry of Health survey found that 17 per cent of children - 83,000 - went to school without breakfast sometimes or always, and that 22 per cent of households with children ran out of food because of a lack of money.

Late last year, Deputy Prime Minister Bill English admitted that if kids turned up at school hungry "it's the obligation of the rest of us to do something about that".

Yesterday's package builds on Fonterra's Milk for Schools programme, and the Kickstart breakfast scheme, which provides breakfast two days a week to 575 schools in the four lowest-income deciles. To expand the programme to the full school week, Fonterra and Sanitarium will have to increase their existing contributions by a total of $9.5 million, matching the Government's grant.

Given the immediate scandal of tens of thousands of kids needing regular nutritional assistance, any help going has to be applauded. But reliance on ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff charity like this is an appalling commentary on the size of the poverty gap in what we used to call God's Own Country.

And it's not a long-term solution. As a school principal asked on radio yesterday, "Who's going to give them breakfast on the 160 other days of the year?"

Last December, the Government's expert advisory group on Solutions to Child Poverty came up with 78 recommendations. It painted a grim picture. "As many as 23 per cent of children - about 270,000 - currently live in poverty." It said the economic cost of child poverty was $6 billion to $8 billion a year and it was damaging the nation's long-term prosperity. For individual children it meant going to school hungry, living in a cold, damp house and missing out on school outings and sports. It led to lower educational achievement, poor health and social exclusion.

Calling for "political vision, courage and determination", the report declared "no child should experience severe and persistent poverty, least of all in a land of relative abundance".

Yesterday's package was not a demonstration of that political vision, courage and determination. It was more the plucking of the lowest, and cheapest fruit in the 78-strong basket and wrapping it with the shiniest of Warehouse-quality wrapping paper.

Especially so when across the road from Parliament in the Court of Appeal, the Government was fighting the action group's attempt to achieve one of the real solutions to poverty outlined by its very own expert advisory group.

Indeed, the advisory group proposed extra assistance totalling $1.2 billion to $2 billion, while the group's claim before the Court of Appeal is more modest, and would cost around $500 million a year.

The Court of Appeal issue goes back to 2004 when the Labour Government introduced a social assistance plan, Working for Families, with the joint goals of confronting the growing problem of child poverty and of dangling incentives before beneficiaries to encourage them into work.

A core incentive was an in-work tax credit payment of $60 a family. Unfortunately for the experts, hardly any beneficiaries took the incentive. This left some of the poorest families in the land ineligible for this new child-poverty assistance package.

The action group began challenging this in the courts when it was first mooted in 2002, and, finally, in 2008 convinced the Human Rights Review Tribunal that the claim the package discriminated against unemployed parents was "real and substantive". However, the tribunal also ruled the discrimination was justifiable. Five years on, the battle continues.

The Child Poverty Action Group argues the policy discriminates against caring for children as a form of work. It also notes that thousands of workers have lost their work in the past five years because of the ongoing recession, and they suffer the double-whammy of not just losing their wages but also the $60-a-week, in-work tax credit.

The Government yesterday was patting itself on the back for adopting some of the 78 recommendations of its advisory group. But the initiatives it has seized, such as the pilot scheme of a warrant-of-fitness programme for rental houses and consideration of micro-financing loans for low-income families, are just baby steps. As solutions to the problem of 270,000 children living in poverty, they're a joke.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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