American philosopher John Rawls suggested that to better appreciate childhood issues we might usefully imagine ourselves in a conscious, intelligent state before our own birth, but without any knowledge of the circumstances into which we are going to be born. We wouldn't know who our mother and father would be, what sort of parenting skills they might have, what our neighbours would be like, how the local schools would perform, what the local health services would be like or how the police and judicial systems might treat us.

In Aotearoa/New Zealand, your conscious pre-birth state might tell you that you would have about a one in four chance of being born into poor or relatively deprived circumstances, with much less in the way of opportunity for stimulating development than the other three-quarters.

You might also be conscious that if you are born poor, the chances of your remaining poor are high. You are aware that some "born poor" still make it to the top, usually blessed by good parenting or otherwise encouraged and supported by someone special. But you are also aware that their success, however supported, leads to the comfortable belief that because they can do it, everybody born into poor circumstances should equally well be able to do so. So if you strike that one in four chance, society might not be greatly concerned about you.

Finding yourself in these circumstances you may well ask: Will I be blamed for my mother's choices? Will anybody remember that I didn't choose to whom I would be born? Will anybody care whether I get a positive start in life to break out of my parents' cycle of inter-generational problems and become a positive and constructive citizen? Or will such potential as I have be regarded as simply unimportant and expendable?


We have not for a number of years been sustaining a replacement birth rate, now referred to as the fertility rate. So economically every child is valuable, as well as being valuable in their own right. We cannot afford to consign any to the trash bin. They are our future adults.

There are many reasons why we haven't adequately addressed the situation. One is that children do not have an electoral voice. They need us. But we blame the adults and forget the children. We have also devalued sound parenting as unpaid work of considerable community value. The emphasis on paid work, even before children reach school age, can be highly detrimental to children.

While independence of state support is a worthy aim, paid work is not a necessary component of good parenting. It certainly doesn't seem to be for those with choice. It should be obligated only when it can be properly managed without detriment to the children. The most certain route out of cycles of violence, abuse and dependency is a positive start in life. The long-term economic and social benefits of this, for every child, are huge.

Two things are primarily required: The first is early identification of vulnerable children with maximum parental support and assistance, particularly for the critical first two or three years of rapid formative brain development. The second is a simplification and adjustment of all child-related benefits such that they are fair and equitable as between children.

To the Government's credit, much work has been done on the first requirement, although much work remains. Little, however, has been done on the second. It is now extremely difficult to provide for children, let alone give them any extra developmental opportunities they may need, on either the current minimum wage or a domestic purposes benefit.

The consequential stress imposed on many parents limits their ability to parent well. Increasing governmental and regulatory requirements have only increased these stress levels. Inadequate financial means is now the single greatest inhibitor of a positive start for every child.

While the 2015 Budget acknowledged childhood poverty issues and adjusted some benefits, albeit without effect until April 1, 2016, these adjustments come nowhere near the overhaul required. It cannot be said: "Problem acknowledged, problem solved". A total review of all child related benefits is required to achieve both an overall simplification and, more importantly, equity between children. Administrative savings should be large.

Such a review needs to have as its starting point the basic costs of housing, feeding, providing health and dental care, access to pre-school education and support services for a child, with an allowance for the transport costs of doing so. It must be child-focused.


This is ultimately about nation-building: the sort of country we want Aotearoa/New Zealand to be and increasingly become: fair-minded and making the most of its resources, including all its children.

But unless we demand action, little is likely to be done. Governments are polls-driven and tend to deal with issues of the day rather than the long-term future. Do we care enough about that future: the future society we are bequeathing to our tamariki and mokopuna, our children and grandchildren? Or will we allow our rates of domestic violence, child abuse, child ill-health and imprisonment to remain unacceptably high in international comparisons? This is our choice.

The goal of a positive start for every child is achievable if we recognise its importance, support it, set our minds to it. We have so much going for us. We can make it so much more.

• Graeme MacCormick is a former Family Court Judge and Human Rights Commissioner.