Social Development Minister Paula Bennett is right when she says poverty isn't an excuse for child abuse. There is no excuse for child abuse.

The link between poverty and inequality on the one hand and child abuse and neglect on the other is well-established.

Even Ms Bennett's baby, the long-awaited white paper on vulnerable children, acknowledges that.

The paper quotes an OECD report which notes that "limited economic resources, financial problems, low levels of education, and unemployment appear to be considerable risk factors for child maltreatment ..."


The evidence shows, it adds, that "in high-income countries, low parental income and educational achievement are strongly associated with both child maltreatment and with deaths resulting from abuse".

The Child Poverty Action Group has argued, too, that "the single biggest risk factor for childhood abuse and neglect is poverty and socioeconomic inequality".

That's not to say "all or even most low-income families abuse or neglect their children", or "all at-risk children live in poor households".

But it does mean "no sensible discussion of childhood abuse and neglect can take place without acknowledging the role of whanau and community poverty".

Yet the white paper, reflecting the Government's apparent determination to downplay the role of poverty, gives it only passing mention.

Barbara Lambourn of Unicef NZ laments the missed opportunity: "Poverty is a factor in neglect, poor health and lack of opportunity - the white paper does not offer solutions to plan better outcomes for these children."

It's not just on poverty the white paper comes up short, though to be fair, it says it's leaving that in the hands of the ministerial inquiry into poverty and the expert advisory group convened by the Children's Commissioner.

Ms Bennett seems sincere when she declares herself driven by "a strong sense of love and responsibility" for vulnerable children.


But despite some sensible ideas designed to improve the detection and response to child abuse, the white paper lacks a transformative vision. It's focused on systems and better management of child abuse.

And it fails to answer the most important questions: How do we stop children becoming vulnerable in the first place? And what should we be doing to improve the lives of all New Zealand children?

The Government raised expectations when it called for ideas to help all children in New Zealand "thrive, belong and achieve".

Unicef along with more than 70 other organisations called for a plan that went beyond a narrow definition of vulnerability.

The Government's plan of action, as Ms Bennett said last week "unapologetically targets resources, interventions and support" to the "most vulnerable" at the extreme end of the spectrum.

Such narrow targeting may seem prudent in the face of current fiscal constraints, but it misses the mark - and potentially thousands of children. And not only because the kind of surgical precision required to make it work is both costly and impossible to achieve.


The evidence from other OECD countries and our history with the old age pension suggests we need a more universal approach - such as the child benefit suggested by the Expert Advisory Group.

The UK's 2010 Marmot Review has shown health inequities can't be achieved by "focusing solely on the most disadvantaged".

Actions must be universal, it said, "but with a scale and intensity that is proportionate to the level of disadvantage".

In his analysis of the effectiveness of policies aimed at reducing child poverty, Stephen Kidd, an expatriate Kiwi and social policy specialist working in Britain, also concludes OECD "countries with the greatest success in reducing poverty tend to be more committed to universal targeting".

"Many people assume that poverty targeting must be more 'progressive', but this is not consistent with the evidence."

Universal benefits build a sense of community and contribute to social cohesion.
Research suggests universal programmes build "alliances between the poor and middle classes"..


As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has written: "Benefits meant exclusively for the poor often end up being poor benefits."

Targeting can create poverty traps, "with families unintentionally encouraged by the state to remain poor".

There's evidence too that the stigma attached to "poor" targeting discourages many people who need assistance from accepting what they regard as demeaning handouts.

This was once the case for the means-tested old age benefit which required over-65s to front up in open court every year to justify their continuing receipt of state support and prove they were of "good moral character".

The process was so demeaning that many elderly chose to live in destitution rather than endure the public humiliation.

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