Lizzie Marvelly: The only debate is what to do about child poverty

Kiwi children are suffering right now. Believe it.
Kiwi children are suffering right now. Believe it. Photo / Getty Images
Kiwi children are suffering right now. Believe it. Photo / Getty Images

Poverty isn't generally associated with the Kiwi childhood. We take for granted that children should have food in their tummies, a warm bed to sleep in and basics like underwear. Right now, in our little country, there are kids who don't have those things. I know it to be true because I've seen it myself.

Beginning with attending a wonderful decile two primary school in Rotorua, and through my work as an ambassador for Variety - The Children's Charity, I'm well aware that I am privileged. As a child, my lunchbox was filled with nutritious goodies, while some of my classmates foraged for their lunches in the rubbish bins. Teachers who found these children rummaging among the chippy wrappers and crusts would take them to the staffroom, where some would end up time and time again, waiting patiently for an apple and a jam sandwich.

When I read about politicians, commentators and academics making lofty arguments about whether poverty is real or who is to blame, I think of those kids, the kids who felt too ashamed to tell a teacher that they had no lunch, so they went hungrily searching through the trash.

The kids Variety supports now - who have no underwear, who think of an armchair as a bed - I think about them and wonder whether the people asserting that poverty isn't an issue in New Zealand have ever left the comfortable bounds of their own privileged neighbourhoods. I wonder whether they realise just how ignorant they are.

What is poverty? It's a question that's been given a considerable amount of airtime. While a number of thresholds and frameworks have been suggested, for a certain group of people, none will ever be good enough, for if we accept the validity of a measure we are then duty bound to accept what it is telling us.

In a country where an unacceptable number of children live below the much-debated poverty line, we are becoming accustomed to hearing the lives of Kiwi kids and their families being thrown around as political hot potatoes.

While we can argue about poverty, its definition, origins, and how it is conceptualised until we're blue in the face, such meaningless politicking does nothing to show people the reality of poverty. It certainly does nothing to feed the thousands of children who are going hungry.

It may be uncomfortable to think about children going without the basics, but that discomfort should indicate the vital importance of trying to resolve the issue. We have a beautiful vision of what the Kiwi childhood should be. It involves summers at the beach, going on school trips and camps, fresh milk and meat plus three veges. It is a dream hundreds of thousands of Kiwi kids won't experience.

Variety chief executive Lorraine Taylor is in no doubt of the reality of child poverty. Photo / Supplied
Variety chief executive Lorraine Taylor is in no doubt of the reality of child poverty. Photo / Supplied

It can be tempting to make ourselves feel superior by buying into arguments that people shouldn't have children if they "can't afford them", or that parents living in poverty shouldn't buy any non-essential items, but such judgments are irrelevant. Whether or not parents could "afford to have children", children have been born. Whether or not parents drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes, children go without the bare necessities.

Blaming parents living in poverty does absolutely nothing to put food into the tummies of hungry kids.

The idea that people living in poverty are somehow to blame for their fate is attractive if one wants to absolve oneself from any sense of responsibility, but it is a notion that I find deeply sad. When did we become so hardened and self-centred that we began to believe that those poorer than us deserve their suffering? When did we become so divorced from our own communities that we stopped caring about the families around us?

For those who are unperturbed by the idea of Kiwi kids going without, the financial impact of poverty is hard to ignore. Poverty is correlated with any number of negative social statistics and often a breeding ground for crime and sickness. With thousands of Kiwi kids growing up in deprivation, our health and justice systems are in for an expensive hit when they reach adulthood.

When ideological jousting and political point-scoring hijack the conversation surrounding child poverty, we forget about the kids.

Children are powerless to change their realities, they must simply try to survive the circumstances they're born into.

Children are powerless to change their realities, they must simply try to survive the circumstances they're born into. Children in poverty had no more choice in their parentage than the children of chief executives.

For those Kiwi kids who find themselves in poverty, we must do better. We must put aside our differences, admit we have a problem and work together to fix it.

Our political parties found that they could shelve their disparate ideologies to sort out superannuation ... why can't they show our youngest and most vulnerable citizens the same level of care?

The wellbeing of our children should never be up for political debate. Nor should we feel disempowered.

There are so many things we could do to make the lives of Kiwi kids better: feeding kids in school, bringing back a means-tested child benefit like the one scrapped in the "mother of all budgets", requiring a warrant of fitness for rental properties to prevent children growing up in cold, damp, leaky houses, and simply helping out in our neighbourhoods.

The first step, however, is for us to look out into our communities and really see other people, to realise that even in the most privileged areas, poverty is just five minutes down the road. It's not a conspiracy. It's real.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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