The release of the Child Poverty Monitor from the University of Otago early in the Christmas season reminds us that for many children Christmas is not a time of good cheer. The report shows some 265,000 New Zealand children living in poverty, with 10% of children in households that are both income-poor and experiencing material hardship. The life chances of these children will be constrained: for them the whispered promises of an improving economy are little more than rumour.
While the government has stated its commitment to protecting vulnerable children, the report highlights how little overall improvement piecemeal, disjointed policies have made to children's lives. While the number of children's injuries has fallen, the key barometer of socioeconomic inequality for children - hospitalisation rates for diseases with a social gradient (that is, diseases sensitive to socioeconomic conditions, for example skin infections) - has continued to increase. While hospitalisation rates fell during the 2000s, they jumped sharply in 2008/2009, and have continued to rise since then.
There are many reasons children are vulnerable: family circumstances may change for the worse; there may be violence in the home; the child or parent may be disabled; or a child may live in a neighbourhood where they are bullied. However, as many submitters to the Green Paper pointed out, and an extensive and in-depth literature review by Child Poverty Action Group identified, a key risk factor for vulnerable children is poverty.
While it is true not all low-income families abuse their children (in fact many do a remarkable job in very trying circumstances), research has identified poverty as being associated with added stress in the household - long working hours or unemployment, frequent shifting or overcrowding to try to minimise housing costs, ill health, the list goes on. What remains uncertain is what tips some families over the edge.
The While Paper on Vulnerable Children largely overlooked the risk posed by poverty in favour of a series of measures to monitor and track adults. But if a child's poverty makes them sick and reduces their life chances then focusing on the behaviour of adults will yield only limited results. A far more comprehensive approach is required.
Child poverty is a complex multifaceted problem requiring complex solutions, but it is not un-fixable. The turnaround in vaccination rates for Maori and Pacific children shows that with sustained political support and genuine cross-sector collaboration, we can improve outcomes for children. This includes closing our scandalous health and educational equity gaps. The Children's Health Monitor clearly shows the equity gap is growing and who are our most vulnerable children. It is this bottom 10% of children who need immediate and prolonged support.
All the main political parties have acknowledged the need to do something about child poverty. As we go into an election year, it is time for them to outline how they can work together to do something about it. Indeed, perhaps we can all reflect on what we might do as stories of overstretched food-banks and budgeting services coincide with the festive season. We could start by demanding an end to the intolerable poverty that limits the lives of too many New Zealand children.
Donna Wynd is the chief researcher for Child Poverty Action Group.