Comparisons with Asia can be valid but what we really need to do is concentrate on the deprived among us.

At a panel discussion at the Auckland launch of my book with Dr Simon Chapple, Child Poverty in New Zealand, I said in response to a question: "There are children in New Zealand living in circumstances that are not much different from those in the slums of Delhi."

An editorial in the Herald on June 20 argues that these claims are "wild" and that the "comparison doesn't stand up".

It is unfortunate that an off-the-cuff remark has become the centre of such attention. Our book is about the unacceptable levels of child poverty in New Zealand and how to fix the problem. It is not about comparisons with India.

Nevertheless, my comments were based on robust empirical evidence and direct personal observation. On various hardship measures, some children here experience circumstances akin to some of those in New Delhi slums.


Last year I volunteered with my wife, a doctor, for an Indian development organisation, Asha, in various slum communities in Delhi, home to more than 4 million people.

Clearly, the conditions for many slum-dwellers are dreadful, with no sanitation, contaminated water, extreme overcrowding, limited access to basic utilities, poor diets, intense heat in summer and pitiful incomes.

But living standards also vary, both within and across the numerous slums.

In many well-established slums the residents have occupancy or ownership rights. Most of the children go to school, often in neat, clean uniforms; some now even attend good universities. Most of the dwellings have electricity; some have TVs and air conditioning. The residents have access to clean water. All primary school children are entitled to a free lunch. Under the Food Security Act, basic food items are heavily subsidised. Today, few children in the better-off slums are severely malnourished.

Obviously, compared with the living standards of most New Zealanders, even those in the well-established slums are deprived. Regrettably, however, some children in this country experience forms of deprivation and social exclusion that are comparable.

*Some face hunger and poor nutrition. For instance, there is evidence that thousands, and possibly tens of thousands, of children go to school without breakfast or lunch. Without the recent initiatives to provide food in schools, things would be much worse.

*In 2006 around 5 per cent of New Zealand children under the age of 15 lived in severely overcrowded homes. In the same year, close to 10,000 children were estimated to be living in severely deprived or makeshift housing.

*Every year, around 40,000 households have their electricity cut off for a time because they cannot afford to pay the bills.


*A disturbing number of children suffer Third World diseases, with relatively high rates of rheumatic fever, cellulitis and serious respiratory conditions.

*In 2007 a study of children in South Auckland with a lower respiratory tract infection found that 27 per cent came from homes with no source of heating.

*Many poor families do not access medical services when they ought to because they lack the means - for example, they may not have a car or access to public transport.

The table highlights the proportion of children in homes with the poorest living standards who miss out on many of the things that most people rightly take for granted as essential.

Public help for many families is inadequate and we need to do something about this - it can be done: the policy levers are readily available. It is good that people are repelled by comparisons with Asian slums. Such living conditions are unacceptable. We can and should do better. Our book suggests how.

Jonathan Boston is a professor of public policy at Victoria University and co-author of Child Poverty in New Zealand.