John Roughan 's Opinion

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Wrong question in child study

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Some very low income families still managing - why not others?

The media can be relied on to attach a human face to the statistics showing how many of us are living in poverty. Photo / Richard Robinson
The media can be relied on to attach a human face to the statistics showing how many of us are living in poverty. Photo / Richard Robinson

Every time I read a report on poverty in New Zealand I wonder whether I'm living in the same country. Do those who are hammering our social conscience with "child poverty" at the moment know anybody in the statistics they study?

The experts are invariably academics who have read a lot of other academic work on the subject but their reports leave me with a sense that all of their work is done at a desk.

They believe, and want me to believe, there is a large and growing section of New Zealand society, mostly right here in Auckland, living a wretched and desperately unjust existence out of my sight.

Newspapers always try to turn these reports into a story with more impact by looking for real living, breathing examples of the problem. The results are usually disappointing.

If the search turns up a truly squalid case there is something in the circumstances that doesn't evoke unqualified sympathy, so more often the published example is a clean and tidy young family that is having a struggle but is getting there.

The latter, I suspect, really is the typical picture of so-called "poverty" in New Zealand and the term is wrong.

It is not the way these people would describe themselves. It is insulting them and misleading the rest of us.

An Expert Advisory Group assembled by the Children's Commissioner this year has produced a report that finds (statistically) about 270,000 New Zealand children living below "recognised poverty thresholds".

That is a lot of children - about one in four of all the kids in the country. You would think everyone would see them, even those of us who live comfortably off in different parts of town.

Well, I think we do see them. The Expert Advisory Group says half of the 270,000 children it calls poor are cared for by sole-parents. Just about all of us these days, no matter where we live, know sole-parents.

The divorce rate has been so high in our generation that I'd wager all of us have or have had at least one family member who has brought up children on the domestic purposes benefit.

We are probably full of admiration and respect for them. We haven't pried, but the benefit and accommodation grants and whatever they earned on the side seemed to be enough to get by.

The kids were well fed, their clothes were clean and not ragged. The house was warm, the children had medicine when they needed it. They went to school every day, played sport, had pets, watched too much television.

Admittedly, they probably had grandparents and an extended family that made up for some of the extras the benefit wouldn't reach. They would be taken on family holidays, shouted the cost of school trips, birthdays and Christmas would be generous. Income statistics don't measure these things.

All of these children are poor by academic definition if their home receives less than 60 per cent of the median household's disposable income after rent or mortgage payments.

The median must have risen quite sharply in the past 40 years because women entered the workforce in the 1970s and ever since, the two-income household has been the norm. When that trend is combined with a high divorce rate children of sole parents are doubly worse off.

Not all of them will have supportive grandparents and wider families. How many? Where are they? Can Whanau Ora help them? I've looked in vain for answers in the experts' report and some of its working papers.

They are more interested in statistical abstractions and blanket solutions such as paying a benefit for young children to all parents, rich or poor, increases in family tax allowances and free meals in low decile schools.

John Key, who was raised by a sole parent, dismissed the free lunch this week. He doesn't believe all those children need one. He would sooner leave it to the schools to decide whether food is really the best use of their decile funds.

Maybe the schools will put that question to the parents who supposedly can't afford to provide a child with breakfast and a packed lunch.

A few weeks ago the hungry pupils story sent TV3's Campbell Live on one of those classic quests to turn a problem into real people.

Having found very few packed lunches in a low decile classroom the programme went out and accosted a few of the class at a local dairy on their way to school.

Two of them were spending money on chips and coke. One had $20. This may be a problem but it is not obviously one of income.

We all know families that get by on existing benefits. If some can do it, why not all? If the experts would face that question they could do the children some good.

- NZ Herald

John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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