Allan Freeth: The sad business of child poverty

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Businesses cannot sit on hands while children go hungry, uneducated, abused and neglected.

A quarter of all Kiwi children live in poverty. Photo / Richard Robinson
A quarter of all Kiwi children live in poverty. Photo / Richard Robinson

There are some who say that the business of business is business, with no role beyond commerce and the activity of making money for shareholders. Those who promote this are not the business leaders New Zealand wants or needs - and it is questionable whether they doing the "right thing" for community and society.

There have, of course, been a number of business leaders who have shown admirable interest and actions in issues outside business. But, in the face of harsh truths of living in New Zealand as a child of poverty, I'm asking this question - as business leaders today, do we care enough about our youth and children?

And are we doing enough beyond the odd initiative and the work of some business-related foundations supporting the odd charity?

I'm not talking about being our "brother's keeper" on an individual scale, even though the world might be a better place if that happened; but only the most ignorant, uncivilised and primitive societies fail to look after their children.

And, given some of the statistics about children in our country, New Zealand appears to be falling short.

As a businessman, I know that business is part of our society. Business has an obligation to be a good citizen, to do good, to provide leadership and to speak out. It has an obligation to support democracy, human rights and the vulnerable.

I also know that unless we address the issue of children - their health, education, poverty and wellbeing - it will cost business and shareholders in the long term. It will cost our society, our nation and our souls.

If you're a business leader, let me ask you some more questions. What do you stand for? As leaders of business and enterprise, as creators of wealth, as influencers of local and national policies, as beacons of success to current and future generations - how do you wish your leadership to be remembered?

I believe that business leadership should be expansive; it should stretch beyond the office and into the community and national dialogue. The challenge for business is not "should we?", but how far we can actually legitimately go to support programmes and activities using our shareholders' money?'

Let's look at the facts. Today, a quarter of children live in poverty in New Zealand. That means going without a doctor, good food, shoes, raincoats and decent housing. If you look at Pasifika children, that statistic rises to 51 per cent; and more than half of Maori families are dependent on benefit incomes.

Nearly 50,000 kids live in homes blighted by violence, 21,000 abuse or neglect cases are confirmed each year, and on average nine children under 14 are killed annually by a family member. In terms of Unicef indicators on child abuse, we are bottom of the heap with Israel and the United Kingdom.

And don't forget the 7000 kids who leave school each year with no qualifications, or the 30,000 (the population of Gisborne township) who bunk school each day.

Our youngest confirmed suicide victim was 6 years old. It's a sobering truth.

You've heard these statistics before, but if they make your eyes glaze over, consider this: If you are a child in New Zealand, you are more likely to be abused than left-handed. How does that make us feel as New Zealanders?

Those reading this today are probably not so hungry that they can't learn. But while good jobs, good neighbourhoods and privilege may lessen the blows, they do not insulate us from tragedies and challenges.

Our statistics are not simply unacceptable, they are truly outrageous. They are beyond comprehension. And where, as business leaders, have we been, I wonder, as more and more reports are released showing more issues with children and youth health and welfare?

I'm not sure, in the development of our society, when business leaders lost the respect of wider society and with it their wider influence. But I believe we have lost a lot of ground. Somehow, the rhetoric of the market has given permission or justification for bad leadership behaviour.

Many will say it is the Government's job to address child poverty and welfare issues. They, as individuals, have already paid taxes, as have their companies and shareholders. Perhaps.

But, as well as wealth, businesses create what economists call externalities. We create dependencies and costs that are often borne by society.

I truly believe none of us want to see New Zealand become a land of gated communities and ghettos. We don't want a society of educated elite and the rugby-amused rabble. Nor an economy where money is lost to wealth creation just to pick up the pieces.

If simply being human is not enough for us in business to act for wider community interests, then maybe this will. We are on the eve of a vast technological revolution that places the power to speak out and act against governments and business squarely in the hands of youth - social media.

To survive and prosper in this new world, Kiwi business leaders will be forced to get involved in the affairs of their communities, nation and its people. We will not be able to ignore coming generations who will seek to influence through their internet power.

So, as we reel once again at our appalling child poverty statistics and wonder what to do, I ask you again: Today, do we care enough about our children?

Allan Freeth is the former head of TelstraClear and keynote speaker at today's University of Auckland Faculty of Education 'Growing New Zealand's Future: Investing in our Nation's Kids' workshop aimed at developing concrete actions to advance immediate child poverty reduction priorities.

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- NZ Herald

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