If you don’t want your taxes to help feed poor kids, think again — we’re all already paying a big price

Social scientists and doctors from the Child Poverty Action Group are up in arms because more than a quarter of a million Kiwi children are living beneath the breadline.

Who are these kids? I can't see them from my suburb. And why the hell should my family's tax dollars be spent on people who can't or won't look after their own?

The concept of being my brother's keeper is totally out of fashion. When I was a kid we were always raising money for the "pagan babies", but we are now hardened to the plight of people we can't see or don't understand.

But here's the truth: we are already paying for the offspring of poverty.

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Hungry children are sick children. Sick children make poor students who struggle to become productive members of society. Feeding children in schools is a smart strategy. More accomplished students will profit all New Zealand in the long run.

Some wonderful individuals and companies have generated breakfast programmes in some of our neediest schools but we need a cross-party pact to prioritise the ethical treatment of little people.

Doctors from CPAG say the effect of totally preventable, poverty-related diseases on our hospitals' budgets is significant and about to snowball. A great deal of this stems from the wretched standard of housing we find acceptable in NZ.

My colleague on Spartacus came to New Zealand for filming and rented a house on the slopes of Tamaki in Auckland's eastern suburbs. Despite the lovely location, the house was uninsulated and had huge gaps round the door frames through which dampness wheezed all winter long. A Scotsman, and familiar with inclement weather, he was aghast that this was what passed for superior housing in New Zealand. Having grown up in a draughty old manse, I just shrugged.

But now that I think about it, one of my five brothers did contract rheumatic fever after which he took penicillin for years and years - there were dark mutterings about damage to his heart.

Today the numbers of kids with acute rheumatic fever and attendant heart issues - costing about $12 million a year - is continuing to rise. Lifting the quality of accommodation will result in far fewer hospital admissions, which can only benefit the taxpayer. Apart from the justifiable cost, what's not to like about that? It is just cruel to go on accepting cold, mildewy homes as a norm. Cruel. We know better.

Last week Nigel Latta's show on the social cost of sugar consumption showed a surgical team extracting the teeth of a 2-year-old child because the mother had been putting Coca Cola in the baby's bottle. So we are in equal parts horrified by sugar and the stupidity of the mother. But this kind of ignorance is part and parcel of poverty. It steals care, imagination and patience, which hampers the growing child with a whole constellation of impediments.

Poverty is also a key factor in child maltreatment and neglect.

In the 1990s, we'd talk of neglected children growing up and producing their own neglected children in cycles of 18 to 20 years. Today, the cycle has tightened into a death spiral. Remember the boys charged over the death of a dairy owner in Henderson this year? The parents of both are in jail or have faced criminal charges.

The social cost of us not stepping in is huge. We are already paying in social trauma, legal and imprisonment costs and policing. We may not be able to fix the parents but we have to put a safety net under the kids we already have.

Of course most poor parents are not neglectful at all. They just can't earn enough to get by.

Low-paid deserve better deal

We need to rethink the value of low-paid workers in our society. Two years ago, I went back to Auckland University part-time. While I was there I had occasion to use the public conveniences. Not once but three times in five months did I stumble upon a bathroom awash with vomit or worse.

I suppose with 40,000 students using the facilities, you will occasionally have people with sudden abdominal complaints explode within cooee of a toilet bowl, if not actually inside it.

The point is, I walked away praying that someone would attend to it in short order. The next day, someone always had. I realised those cleaners ought to get not only a fair wage, but danger money. That stuff is toxic!

Why is their contribution to the welfare of the group less valid than, say, an accountant? I reckon anyone who deals with poo deserves a living wage at the very least.

I did my community service in a resthome and I can tell you the folks who clean our aged parents from morning to night and break their backs lifting them from bed to shower to chair ought to be treated like heroes. They lovingly do the work that enables us to go about our careers.

Poor pay means high turnover of staff, which is disruptive and unsettling to the elderly who rely on them and become attached. They should at least be earning enough to look after their own kids while they look after our parents. Don't you think?

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