Dr Russell Wills: Child poverty is everybody's business

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Ask yourself what you and the organisations you belong to can do to make a difference, writes Russell Wills

We get the society we demand. If we really want to see fewer children in poverty, we will need to make some tough choices. Photo / Thinkstock
We get the society we demand. If we really want to see fewer children in poverty, we will need to make some tough choices. Photo / Thinkstock

Last year, I set a group of experts an ambitious task - to find solutions to the "wicked problem" of child poverty. In December 2012 they released their report, Solutions to Child Poverty in New Zealand: Evidence for Action. It was hugely influential, making a good splash in the media and prompting plenty of discussion in homes, schools and workplaces around the country. The influence was best seen in the May 2013 Budget when the Government announced over $3 billion for initiatives that will benefit children.

So, now we have the beginnings of a housing policy; more social housing, added bedrooms for larger families, extension of the insulation programme and moving housing needs assessments from Housing NZ to Work and Income. We have more funding for parenting programmes and early childhood education, rheumatic heart disease and on-time immunisation, and free primary care at all times for under-6s. I'm proud to live in a country that makes choices like these for its children.

Next year is election year and all the parties have an opportunity to show us their commitment to children. We all know that investing in our youngest and most vulnerable citizens will benefit all of us. So what we need to see is a clear commitment from all parties to move in the areas that will make the biggest difference to those children. In particular, we need liveable incomes and a commitment to mandatory child poverty reduction targets that hold ministers and chief executives to account - as is in place in the United Kingdom.

So how will political parties get to the point of making that commitment? The answer, I believe, doesn't lie with politicians, but with us. The political reality is it is difficult to increase total expenditure without increasing debt, and that is debt our children will have to pay off. Also, no government will go further than the public mood will allow. We have not yet sent a clear signal to the parties that we are prepared to support some tough choices for the benefit of children.

Who sends this message matters. I don't believe that it's for me to recommend that the age of entitlement for NZ Super be raised to free up resource for children. Age Concern and Grey Power could make that case. The Road Transport Forum and Automobile Association could advocate for setting aside some roading resource for social housing. The New Zealand Medical Association and district health board chairs could advocate to shift resources from DHBs with wealthier and healthier populations to those with poorer populations, and into care for children. Wouldn't it be extraordinary if the Property Investors' Association put their hands up and said the warrant of fitness for private rental accommodation would be good for children, so let's do it?

Ultimately, we get the society we demand. If we really want to see fewer children in poverty, we will need to make some tough choices. We will need to send clear messages to decision makers about our priorities. So, as the debates around election year start to heat up, what will your contribution be? Will you leave the tough choices to the politicians, or will you stand up in your own organisations and ask: what can we do to prioritise children in this election year?


Dr Russell Wills is the Children's Commissioner.

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- NZ Herald

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