Rodney Hide: Poverty claims show welfare system failure

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Giving families more money isn't going to make parents care more. Photo / APN
Giving families more money isn't going to make parents care more. Photo / APN

"Child poverty's terrible! Kids hungry! It's getting worse!

"270,000 poor kids. And government? Doing nothing!"

But hang on. All kids are poor. Children typically don't own much beyond a few toys. That's true in poor families. And it's true of rich families.

Children must rely totally on parents and caregivers. On their own, they're destitute.

And yet we have a report boldly titled Child Poverty. That tugs at the heartstrings and makes great newspaper copy but it's wrong. The report should properly be titled family or household poverty.

But even that's misleading. The 270,000 "child poverty" figure refers to relative poverty. Your children suffer in "poverty" if your household's net income is less than 60 per cent of your equivalent household's median income. The cut-off income for a couple with four children is just over $1000 a week.

Net.

It's no wonder that one child in four lives in "poverty" - $1000 a week in the hand is well above any lack of comfort let alone starvation. But for the experts, that's "poverty".

A windfall that doubled all incomes wouldn't budge the child "poverty" figure. There would still be 270,000 poverty-stricken children. That's because experts define "poverty" in reference to the middle income.

Making people richer doesn't fix relative poverty. The only fix is to narrow the spread of income, even if that makes everyone poorer. That's why experts recommend taking even more income from families above the median income to give to those below it. The fix follows directly from defining "child poverty" as household inequality.

News reports now link the poverty report to children turning up to school hungry. But even the gloomiest estimates don't have 270,000 hungry kids.

Labour leader David Shearer quoted a 2002 Ministry of Health survey to say 83,000 children aged 5 to 14 "sometimes or often went to school without breakfast". That's well short of the 270,000 "living in poverty".

But even the 83,000 figure is exaggerated. The survey found the equivalent of 83,000 kids in the previous week "not" or "sometimes not" eating or drinking at home before school but 76,000 "usually" or "sometimes" eating or drinking on the way to school. Presumably, they are many of the kids who didn't eat at home.

The survey found that the older the child the more likely they were not to eat at home and the more likely they were to eat on the way to school. Also, girls were more than twice as likely as boys not to eat at home. The sex and age differences suggest forces other than poverty at work.

Further, although children from poorer households were more likely not to eat at home before school, they were also more likely to drink Coke and eat chips and be fatter.

Poverty can't be the cause. A bowl of porridge costs 10 cents. The most nutritious food on the planet is liver. It costs 70c a serve. The second most nutritious is an egg: 50c.

I have nourishing bone broth for lunch. The marrow bones for a good brew cost $10. That's 50c a meal. Good nutritious food doesn't cost much. It certainly doesn't cost much compared to a Coke, a bag of chips or a burger.

The lack of breakfast is not caused by a lack of money. It's caused by a lack of care. That lack of care can't be fixed by giving parents more money. Handing parents more money doesn't make them care more.

The welfare state is more than 100 years old. It's been constantly expanded and enhanced.

The original framers would be astonished and appalled by its depth and width. And yet, thousands of children arrive at school hungry.

The fix is invariably seen by experts as more welfare. The Government should supply breakfast and perhaps lunch and then, no doubt, dinner.

But hungry kids prove that welfarism has failed. Welfare has made the Government increasingly responsible for children and parents less and less so.

Poverty has become an excuse for parents who send their children to school hungry and the Government's job now is not only to provide those parents with an income and a house but to cook their kids' breakfast as well.

The question of the proper fix comes down to what we call the experts' report. Is it "Child Poverty"? Or "Child Neglect"?

rodney.hide@hos.co.nz


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- Herald on Sunday

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