We now know, courtesy of the annual Child Poverty Monitor, that no fewer than 80,000 New Zealand children live in poverty.

As Judge Andrew Becroft, the Children's Commissioner, points out, that number is enough to fill Eden Park twice over.

What does "living in poverty" actually mean? There was a time when statistics about child poverty were dismissed, particularly by those who didn't want to hear them, on the ground that they were no more than a measurement of those living below a certain percentage of the average income; so, it was argued, an increase in child poverty was meaningless, since it would rise automatically in response to any increase in average income.

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This latest figure is not, however, simply a percentage of something else but is the outcome of a survey on the basis of specific criteria such as the availability of enough to eat. The figures are therefore not so easily dismissed and provide us with a snapshot of what it means in today's New Zealand to grow up in poverty.

What the survey tells us is that 80,000 New Zealand children are poor in the sense that they do not have enough to eat and what they do eat is often not of good nutritional quality. It tells us that they do not have adequate clothing or footwear and that they are often not only hungry but also wet and cold - problems that are exacerbated by the poor-quality, damp and rotting accommodation they live in.

What is also clear is that children growing up in such conditions suffer worse health, are more likely to go to hospital, achieve less educationally, and go on in large numbers to struggle for the rest of their lives. Child poverty means, in other words, that we are shaping the future - a future that is not a happy one but is fraught with problems for both the individuals affected and for our society as well.

The survey's conclusions cannot therefore be dismissed by any thinking person. The question for all of us, therefore, is whether this is acceptable and if not, what should we do about it?

Should we shrug our shoulders and say that it is not our responsibility - that it is admittedly bad luck for the kids born into poor families, but that the price that must be paid for that misfortune is theirs and theirs alone; they cannot look to others - that is, to us - for a solution.

Poor people, some will say, shouldn't have children until they know they can look after them properly. Parents without resources, others will say, should solve the problem themselves rather than look to others to bail them out. And (this one is a favourite), if they do get help, how do we know that it will go to the children and not on fags and booze - a good one, that, since it not only blames the parents for being poor but doubts whether they really care for their children or not.

Attitudes such as these simply ensure that our society continues to be disfigured by the plight of children in a rich society growing up, through no fault of their own, without the chance to make something of their lives.

What we could say instead is that small children have no power to decide how income is distributed in our society. They simply have to accept what is determined by the attitudes and values by which our society operates. But we could, if we so choose, change those attitudes and values, and demand that we do better.


We could insist that more resources - that is public resources, our resources - are put into alleviating poverty and ensuring that our children are properly fed, warmly clothed, adequately housed. No one can doubt that these goals are achievable - we have the resources; all that is required is the political will.

We have at least made a start by electing a government that is committed to ending child poverty; the Child Poverty Reduction Bill they have introduced is a first step. We now need to make sure that, as well as measuring and understanding the problem, we - that is, our government - does something, in our name, to solve it.

. Bryan Gould is a former British MP and Waikato University vice chancellor