Child poverty has become a new frontier for socialist activism, transformed from a social cause into a political agenda, with the objective of discrediting the government and undermining parental responsibility in order to introduce more state intervention, higher taxes, and greater levels of income redistribution.

So says Dr Muriel Newman, founding director of the New Zealand Centre for Political Research.

Last year child advocates, including the Children's Commissioner, had become shrill in their claim that 180,000 children lived in such dire poverty that their parents were sending them to school hungry. They pushed for government-funded breakfast and lunch programmes to be set up in schools around the country.

"With schools closed for the summer break and their free food programmes no longer operating, one could have expected a plethora of media commentary about hungry children. The lack of such stories confirms what common sense tells us - their assertions are a sham," she said.

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"Fortunately child starvation in New Zealand is rare, and is a symptom of severe family dysfunction and neglect rather than a lack of money. When it occurs it should not be excused as child poverty and blamed on the government, for when parents fail to accept their full responsibility to feed their children properly it is child abuse and the authorities should step in, like they did in a 2005 case of a mother who starved her two children aged 2 and 4 to the point where they were forced to eat toothpaste.

"There is, of course, hardship in this country. From time to time even the most responsible of parents can fall on hard times and need support. But the activists' claims that hundreds of thousands of children are being starved on a daily basis to the point where the government needs to set up nation-wide feeding programmes is simply not credible.

"If they were doing their job, the media would be exposing that fact. Instead they seem to prefer to parrot the sensational, but false, claims of activists."

The problem was that through their demands for free food in schools, child poverty advocates were expanding New Zealand's dependency culture to embrace not just those on welfare, but working families as well. By encouraging parents to neglect their duty to provide nourishment for their children, activists were enticing them to rely on state handouts. Instead of empowering vulnerable families to strive to get ahead, they were undermining the cornerstone values of independence and personal responsibility upon which New Zealand was built.

"The abhorrent consequences of dependency, and the victimhood mentality it creates, were aptly described last month in the Southland Times in a story about how an Invercargill family with six children blamed the Salvation Army for the fact that they were going to be missing out on Christmas: 'Shelly Edwards and Leo Hewett said their six children aged 3-10 will get no presents and have a diet of chicken and bread on Christmas day because the Salvation Army failed to help them in their time of need.'

"Their woeful tale began in 2013, when the family had been registered for the Salvation Army's Adopt-a-Family scheme, which saw businesses and individuals sponsor struggling families over Christmas by providing a hamper filled with food and treats. When the family were again referred to the scheme by the Nga Kete Trust in 2014, they thought that their Christmas was again taken care of.

However, the Salvation Army requires families who receive assistance to take steps to help themselves through learning budgeting skills. So when the parents failed to attend their scheduled budgeting meetings, they were notified that they were no longer eligible for the scheme.

"The family refused to accept that their predicament was of their own doing, and they blamed the Salvation Army. But if they had not relied on handouts in the first place they would undoubtedly have made suitable arrangements for Christmas, in the same way that many other struggling families prepare for the big day - squirreling money away during the year, making or baking gifts ... the options for an enjoyable low-cost Christmas are endless, but it requires a family to take self-responsibility for the situation they are in and to make the best of it with a positive attitude."

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To its credit the Salvation Army recognised that dependency was damaging. Its aim was to get families to the point where they could be self-sufficient.

The reality was that most of families whose children received free food at school were not in dire need, but were simply opportunists taking advantage of the goodwill of others.

"The problem is that they are being used to progress a deeply political agenda, and in the process they are embracing an implicit message that it is acceptable to pretend you are too poor to provide breakfast for your children," Dr Newman said.

"Long-suffering taxpayers know that child poverty on a scale touted by the activists is a con. It only costs a few cents a day to give a child a bowl of porridge and some milk for breakfast, and a sandwich and some seasonal fruit for lunch. But tens of thousands of families have been coerced into pleading poverty and fabricating the truth by claiming that they cannot afford to feed their children, when, as the summer holiday is showing, they clearly can."