Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Answers start with the children

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Empathetic, resilient human beings who become productive citizens are made in the first six years. Photo / Getty Images
Empathetic, resilient human beings who become productive citizens are made in the first six years. Photo / Getty Images

The answers to our social welfare problems are simpler than we think - and by that I don't mean easy or quick or cheap, which is what governments prefer to hear, but obvious and staring us in the face.

Even the Government-appointed welfare working group, with its manufactured welfare "crisis" and its too narrow focus on paid work and "dependency" (welfare being akin to a drug habit, in their eyes) seems to have parts of the jigsaw.

In a recent interview on Radio NZ's Nine to Noon, Paula Rebstock, the economist heading the group, touched on two points worth remembering in the current debate.

First, that "we don't have a crisis for those who are on the benefit and go back to paid employment and independence quickly ... a large, large number do, whether you're looking at sickness benefit or the unemployment benefit there's no doubt that about 80 per cent make that transition".

And second, that there are "lifetime benefits" to be had from "early investment" in that hard-to-move 20 per cent.

The crisis, then, is with the 20 per cent with "very significant issues" who Rebstock says "tend to get stuck, and they get stuck for very long periods and they tend to have repeat periods, and the good thing is that it is a small, concentrated group".

It so happens that 20 per cent, or one in five, is the number of children who live in poverty in New Zealand, the number who have grown up in a family reliant on a benefit, and the number failed by the education system. Might there possibly be a connection?

Among that hard-to-shift 20 per cent of beneficiaries are those with mental health issues, physical disabilities, and drug and alcohol addiction.

Many are ill-equipped to enter an increasingly competitive labour market and will need intensive help to get them to the starting line; some will never be able to work.

In the case of sole parents, Rebstock's "early investment" means access to quality childcare, and education and training, all of which the Government has made less affordable.

She admits it won't be cheap, but "what is the lifetime cost of not investing in those things?".

That's a good question, and one I wish the working group had been charged with asking more widely - because its idea of early investment is at least a decade or so too late.

To make a real difference, investment needs to happen much earlier. It needs to start at the start, with our children.

The science is compelling. Even the Prime Minister's chief science adviser, Dr Peter Gluckman, is on record as saying we're spending money at the wrong end of the age spectrum.

How children begin their lives has a profound impact on their future prospects. Neuroscientists tell us that the first six years are critical. Empathetic, resilient human beings who become productive citizens (the kind who move quickly off the benefit if the jobs are there) are made in the first six years.

Yet not only do we fail to invest in early childhood - 9 per cent of the education budget is spent on early childhood education, against 46 per cent on schools and about 35 per cent on tertiary education - but we are prepared to tolerate a large proportion of our children growing up in poverty.

Poverty blights the lives of too many New Zealand children, and it does that whether we accept that it exists or not.

It's also bad for the country, as the alternative welfare working group Welfare Justice points out, damaging the potential of children to contribute "socially and economically".

It affects how well children do at school, their employment prospects and earning power, their future physical and mental health, how long they live, whether they end up with drug and alcohol problems, or as teenage mums, or in prison. And yes, whether they end up in that stubborn welfare group.

Child poverty and its associated ills are not beyond our control. We've largely eradicated poverty among the elderly, we could do the same with child poverty. As Welfare Justice points out, the countries with the lowest levels of child poverty are the countries with the highest levels of government financial support for children.

So Government policy makes a difference; the $60 a week In Work Tax Payment denied to around 200,000 New Zealand children whose parents are beneficiaries is a clear example of a policy choice that favours a paid work incentive over ensuring an adequate standard of living for beneficiary children.

This is stupid and short-sighted.

Welfare Justice says we have 30 years to address our social welfare problems.

"The first policy option for the Government to take is to improve the health, education and income adequacy of families with young children as an investment in the country's future ... Investment in children is fundamental to both their development and to New Zealand's social and economic future."

Tapu.Misa@gmail.com

- NZ Herald

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