You can't easily tell the poor kids from the well-off ones at my children's high school except on mufti days, when the school allows students to wear their own clothes instead of the school uniform. On those days, the poorest kids tend to stay home.
Uniforms are a great equaliser if you can afford them. I put off buying the school's regulation winter jackets this year until it got too cold to avoid it, but I often see kids on the coldest, wettest days trudging to school without a jacket and sometimes even without the jersey ($100-plus). I often wonder how much those kids learn on those days.
Being poor isn't just stressful and humiliating at times; it's bad for you.
That's one thing at least that the Child Poverty Action Group and the Government can agree on: poverty can damage children, often irreparably. "A child raised in poverty is a child deprived of its fair chances in life," Michael Cullen told the Labour Party conference last year. Poverty leads to poor child health, says the Ministry of Social Development, "which is linked to poor adult health and also to broader poor outcomes including unemployment and crime".
There is no disputing which group of poor children is the most vulnerable. Jobless families are the most disadvantaged, says the OECD, and numerous official reports here leave no doubt that children in beneficiary families suffer lower living standards and are at greater risk of "negative outcomes" - higher mortality rates, lower cognitive development and poorer future employment - than the children of working parents.
Where the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and the Government disagree is how best to help those children.
CPAG thinks the greater vulnerability and demonstrably greater need of beneficiary children is an argument for more state help. The Government believes it's an argument for making life on the benefit as unattractive as possible, so that beneficiary parents may be "incentivised" to enter the paid workforce.
Which assumes, of course, that everyone on a benefit (including those on the sickness and invalid benefits) could get off their butts and get a job if they really wanted to.
That's the basis for the in-work tax credit that the child poverty group is challenging before the Human Rights Review Tribunal. It pays $60 a week to families with up to three children, and $15 a child for every child after that, but only if they're not reliant on a benefit.
CPAG says this discriminates against the children of beneficiaries, on the basis of their parents' source of income. The Government has said beneficiary families already receive more state help than working families, and even if "differential treatment" did give rise to disadvantage, "differential treatment in the provision of social assistance for children by reference to the circumstances of their family members is plainly justified". Which I think means "tough" in everyday language.
There's nothing wrong with helping people into the workforce. We don't need to labour the benefits of working for a living, which brings self-respect as well as the ability to pay the bills.
But the in-work tax credit is a blunt instrument. It was the child tax credit in its earliest incarnation, and when National introduced it in 1996, Labour was opposed.
Annette King said it isolated "beneficiaries from other families, treats them like lepers and worst of all it treats their children differently. What is different about a beneficiary child? Does that child look different when she or he goes to school? Yes, that child probably does look different because of the circumstances of the family."
And Michael Cullen said that drawing "distinctions between what the state says should go to low-income families on the basis of the source of that income rather than on the level of that income is obscene. Why use children as a work incentive?" he asked.
Should vulnerable children be used as a leverage to get parents into work? What happens when people can't work because of serious illness? Must that family's already considerable troubles be compounded because of a belief that thousands of able-bodied New Zealanders are shirking work?
There's little evidence that such incentives work. It's true the number of people on the unemployed benefit or DPB has fallen since 2000, thanks largely to a strong economy, but the proportion of children in severe and significant hardship increased 36 per cent between 2000 and 2004. As the OECD has noted, employment isn't the full solution.
Child psychologists and neuroscientists say we have a short time to make a difference in children's lives. As Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral wrote: "Many things we need can wait. The child cannot. Now is the time his bones are being formed; his blood is being made; his mind is being developed. To him we cannot say tomorrow. His name is today."
Can we afford to gamble with our most vulnerable children?