The shame of child poverty in NZ

By Michael Botur

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In the lead-up to the election we’re taking a look at some of the issues people care about and how the political parties aim to tackle them. Today, Michael Botur explores child poverty and asks if we’re standing up for our most vulnerable citizens.

Child poverty is a major issue in Northland with the Child Poverty Action Group (above) hanging out Northland's child poverty dirty laundry in Cameron St mall to highlight the situation. Photo / File
Child poverty is a major issue in Northland with the Child Poverty Action Group (above) hanging out Northland's child poverty dirty laundry in Cameron St mall to highlight the situation. Photo / File

The 1982 level of child poverty was 14 per cent. Since then, it's doubled, according to the 2013 Child Poverty Monitor, with one in four children now living in poverty. Today, child poverty is embedded in our vernacular with almost 280,000 children impoverished - that's something like the population of Hamilton and Dunedin combined.

Sixty-three per cent of poverty-stricken children are to be found in beneficiary households; 53 per cent in single parent families. One in six European children live in poverty with Maori and Pasifika twice as likely to be so affected.

If it sounds like child poverty is a new buzzword, the concept has 20 years behind it: The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child called for governments to enforce the well-being of children in 1993; Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) was formed the next year. It's not as if all parties have jumped on the child poverty bandwagon - several of the parties likely to enter Parliament have no child poverty policy whatsoever.

Mind watching the kids?

The last election saw Bryan Bruce's documentary Inside Child Poverty make ripples when it was aired in September 2011, with Phil Goff claiming Labour's policies were "almost a blueprint" of the changes called for the film.

CPAG says child poverty has become this election's No1 issue, the topic coming into focus in 2013 with the publication of Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis. It says there has been "a noticeable shift in public mood about child poverty, from denial and even ridicule a decade ago, to widespread acceptance and concern about its consequences.

The CPAG plan to rescue children concentrates on parents - because it feels when they are denied the In Work Tax Credit (Working for Families) their children miss out. The organisation claimed unsuccessfully in the Court of Appeal that the IWTC was discriminatory as incentivising work for sole parents did harm to children.

Pop poverty / kids caught in the middle

Child poverty is being used as ammunition by warring politicians.

In 2007, Mt Albert state house child Aroha Ireland, 12, was given attention by John Key. She linked National with the young and poor. Ireland bailed for Australia in 2012. This coincided with Jacinda Ardern's Child Poverty Reduction and Eradication Bill, introduced to Parliament in October of that year. Then, the 2013 Household Incomes Report was interpreted by the opposition as showing that numbers of children living in severe poverty had reached their highest ever.

The HIR / Household Economic Survey also showed New Zealand is in the middle of OECD and EU rankings for child poverty rates.

Last year's Budget had a "work-first ideology" that perpetuated "financial sanctions on beneficiary families" to create "an invisible underclass of children", CPAG said.

The University of Otago's Child Poverty Monitor report mentions school lunches and breakfasts not once, but that hasn't stopped politicians becoming obsessed with the concept.

Hone Harawira's Education (Breakfast and Lunch Programmes in Schools) Amendment Bill had its first reading in May. It provides for state-funded breakfasts and lunches in decile 1-2 schools. CPAG has backed this, calling on decile 1-3 schools to be funded to provide breakfasts. Shirley Maihi, principal of Finlayson Park School, said it was about brain food. "It makes a huge difference to our students. Children simply cannot learn effectively if they are hungry. We've seen too many promising students fall behind, right from the beginning of their school days, trying to learn through a hungry haze."

Finlayson Park School doesn't receive funding for the breakfasts it provides every day.

Children Commissioner Russell Wills said his office had guidelines for running school breakfast programmes. There's no doubt minds need food, but creating a "Poor Kids Breakfast Club," as Dr Wills called it, can do harm. "They can create dependency and stigma. We need to design programmes so that neither of those outcomes occurs."

If school breakfast programmes are done right, parents will learn, too. Dr Wills said Wellesley Community Action had found the best way to work with Porirua schools. "They work with the dads to build gardens at the preschool, the mums learn how to plant, when to harvest and cook, they're also talking to preschool teachers, joining with kids, learning and developing language."

It doesn't mean the Government foots the bill.

Professor Jonathan Boston of Victoria University has said eradicating child poverty through state spending is "too daunting for the Government". Metiria Turei in July accused the Prime Minister of failing children after an extra 35,000 were categorised as impoverished. The Greens claim a Universal Child Benefit payment would cost $450 million. The cost of child poverty? Six billion a year a year.

Dr Wills estimated child poverty costs up to 4 per cent of GDP. "Very poor children are more likely to be very ill or fail in school, leave without qualifications or go on to an adult life of low productivity and welfare dependency these outcomes are preventable if we invest when children are very young."

Crisis? what crisis?

Our Government does not measure child poverty; we don't even have an official poverty line.

The statistics quantifying child poverty come from Otago's Child Poverty Monitor, compiled with the Children's Commissioner and J R McKenzie Trust.

But the Whangarei Child Poverty Action Group says nationally 22 per cent of children were living in poverty, but the figure was even higher for Northland, where 49 per cent of children were identified as being born in the bottom two most-deprived deciles - the highest child poverty rate in the country.

The monitor's annual report evaluates child poverty in relation to material hardship, GDP and unemployment, a child's reliance upon beneficiaries, infant mortality and neglect. Children who aren't rescued from poverty within seven years are likely to face lifelong difficulties, results indicate. The report is informed by the NZ Living Standards Survey.

Promises

Some of this year's election promises to reduce child poverty:

National:

• Free doctors' visits and prescriptions for children under the age of 13
• Better protect children with children's teams
• Boost paid parental leave to four weeks
• Spend an extra $155.7 million on ECE centres
• $33.2 million on eight new children's teams to work with at-risk children
• Screen people who work with children

Labour:

• Jacinda Ardern's Child Poverty Reduction and Eradication Bill will measure child poverty before setting eradication targets
• Best Start package will provide $60 a week for most families
• Increase free ECE to 25 hours
• Fund 100 per cent qualified ECE teachers

Greens:

• Universal Child Benefit which can be capitalised for a home deposit
• Strengthen teen parenting programmes
• Eradicate school absenteeism
• Put youth voices into local governance
• Youth mental health initiatives
• Reduce suicide and drug abuse
• Alcohol health warnings

NZ First:

• Clothing allowance for unsupported children
• Health screening of all children under one year.
• Implementing recommendations of health select committee report on oral health; review state funding for teenagers' dental treatment.
• Additional resourcing for child mental health services

Maori Party:

• Eliminate child poverty by 2020
• Designate an official poverty line
• Extend the in-work tax payment to all families.
• Investigate a Universal Child Benefit
• Establish a Neighbourhood Renewal
• Fund incentivising community gardens, afterschool care and post-natal support for parents.

United Future:

• Extend paid parental leave to 13 months.
• One-stop shop family service centres providing services around health, relationships and WFF
• Safeguard children from harmful internet material

Conservative:

• No published child poverty policy, but Colin Craig told a letter writer "the parent of a child is the party responsible to ensure that a child is fed" and if co-operation with school lunch programmes fails, "Then coercion may be necessary."

ACT:

• The solution to child poverty lies with government doing less" because "most children in low income homes are brought up by loving and capable parents and do not need a solution".

MANA:

• Fund breakfasts in schools as well as free school healthcare

Internet Party:

• No published policy yet.

- APNZ

- NORTHERN ADVOCATE

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