NZ and India child poverty comparison doesn't stand up

Book launches can be a trap for unwary authors. Eager to gain the maximum publicity for their work, they face an ever-present temptation to gild the lily. Done adroitly, this can attract the attention and sales every author wants. Done badly, however, it can detract from the book and the cause it is promoting. That, unfortunately, was the case when Jonathan Boston spoke this week at the launch in Auckland of Child Poverty in New Zealand, which he has written with Simon Chapple.

Dr Boston's mistake was to suggest that the poorest New Zealand children were now no better off than some children in the slums of India. This statement, he said, was based on observations made when he spent a month late last year in Delhi where his wife worked as a volunteer doctor.

"India has about half of the world's poorest children, but there are children in New Zealand living in circumstances that are not that much different from those in the slums of Delhi," he said. "They are in houses that don't have heating, in caravans that don't have running water, and in families that simply don't have enough food of the right kind every day."

It is undeniable that some New Zealand children are living in the circumstances outlined by Dr Boston. But, equally, it is drawing the longest of bows to equate their plight to that of the many, many children living in the sort of slums associated with India. Child mortality statistics from agencies like the World Bank underline this.


Then there is the matter of the social welfare net in New Zealand. Dr Boston talks of a continuum in which some New Zealand children overlap with the circumstances of children in developing countries, but few will be convinced that the comparison he is making is valid.

At its worst, that may diminish the impact of Child Poverty in New Zealand. Yet there is much of merit in the book, which draws on the working papers that underpinned the expert advisory group's report to the Children's Commissioner in late 2012.

Dr Boston was the co-chairman of that group, whose report contained worthwhile recommendations, including establishing a warrant of fitness for rental housing, letting children benefit directly from their non-custodial parent's child support payment to Inland Revenue, and giving small loans at little or no interest for low-income households.

His and Dr Chapple's book is far from a dirge of despair. It concludes that "New Zealand has the necessary resources to reduce child poverty, and equitable and efficient ways to secure these resources are available". The proposed solutions are not the product of a narrow political agenda, and are presented as an opportunity to deliver long-term dividends, including reduced unemployment, better health status and faster economic growth.

Particularly interesting is the authors' view that there should be a redistribution of government support, so children are placed on the same footing as the elderly. At present, they say, all generations are not being treated fairly.

It would be a shame if the comparison with the slums of India undermined the book's impact. But this, unfortunately, is not an isolated example of attempted emotional manipulation by child poverty campaigners. They have also not done their cause any good by insisting that as many as one in four New Zealand children live in poverty. Such statements devalue their case and cast them as extremists. The children they aim to help would gain more from advocacy that is as sober as it is sound.