Tapu Misa writes that NZ's poor ranking shows we don't just spend ineffectively on children, we skimp.
Why is the idea of helping poor children so difficult to sell in a country with a supposed "socialist streak"?
A recent WikiLeaks cable had John Key telling an American diplomat that New Zealanders wouldn't put up with very conservative policies because of our socialist streak. Key has since explained that he was referring to our caring nature. New Zealanders "do have a heart", he said.
But child poverty advocates must wonder what it will take to get those hearts on the side of the 200,000 children growing up in poverty, as yet another dire report on child poverty is added to the growing pile, this time focused on Maori and Pacific children.
The second of two reports commissioned by the lobby group Every Child Counts, it arrived with a warning that New Zealand was sitting on a "Polynesian timebomb" that threatens to explode into the kind of violence seen recently in Britain.
Perhaps fear is a better motivator for action, though I somehow doubt it.
Should we prefer the economic arguments?
There are plenty of those in the Infometrics report, 1000 Days to Get it Right for Every Child, which argues for increased public investment in children's early years, and estimates the economic cost of child poverty at about $6 billion a year, or 3 per cent of GDP.
The report counters an oft-heard line, repeated by John Key in the Green Paper for Vulnerable Children, that good outcomes for children have defied massive public investment. That makes it sound as if more money couldn't possibly help.
In fact, we spend less than half the average in the OECD on our children, and our poor ranking for child outcomes (28th out of 30) reflects that low investment. Countries that throw the most money at children tend to get the best results. The exception is the Netherlands, which ranks among the top for about half the money of the big spenders, but even they spend nearly twice as much as we do.
So, we don't just spend our money badly. We skimp on our children.
It's symptomatic of our ambivalence that, in the face of so much evidence for the social and economic benefits of spending early on children - and what should be the unacceptable costs of not doing so - the Government's Green Paper asks the public to tell it whether it should "reprioritise spending to provide more early intervention ... ? If so, from where should the funding be taken?"
I don't remember being asked if the Government should spend public money on the bailout of South Canterbury Finance investors, or the Rugby World Cup, and what we'd have to sacrifice for that.
So what's the problem? Could it be that our so-called socialism looks more like the "compassionate conservatism" associated with George W. Bush, and defined by Bill Clinton as: "I want to help you. I really do. But, you know, I just can't"?
It's not that compassionate conservatives don't care; they really do, apparently. It's just that they believe that an unencumbered free market is the best hope for poor people, that governments should leave poverty alleviation to the community, that only the deserving poor should be helped, and that all the rest need do to pull themselves out of poverty is stop blaming the system, take responsibility for themselves, and work harder (because anyone who can't get a job is obviously not trying hard enough).
Which looks a lot like old-fashioned conservatism.
When the Herald ran a series of stories showing how many thousands of children turned up to school hungry every day, around half of those who reacted said that feeding kids was the parents' responsibility, not the taxpayers'. They took care of their own children; why should they have to take care of others'?
Well, of course, feeding hungry children would just encourage them, wouldn't it?
There's not much sympathy for the argument that it's "the right thing to do".
Hence the approach of Analytica, a group of 11 Auckland consultants that set out two years ago to look at the cost of child poverty, and concludes on the basis of New Zealand data that it's costing us $8 billion a year, or 4.5 per cent of GDP.
John Pearce, a Remuera engineer, said the group became interested after one of its members "came to a meeting and told us that [head of paediatrics at Auckland University, Professor] Innes Asher said there were 200,000 New Zealand children growing up in poverty, and we were disbelieving. So we decided to investigate and found it was true. And we didn't think it was acceptable, nor that it was the best economic outcome for the country."
Professor Asher has argued that National's 1991 welfare cuts "drove children into poverty, not parents into work", and led to the rise of preventable diseases, resulting in expensive hospitalisations, and permanent disability for some children, the long-term costs of which "are likely to have outweighed any savings from welfare cuts".
Says Pearce, "We all agree that poverty is essentially an ethical issue." But, "if morality can't motivate action, perhaps recognition of the costs to New Zealand can".