Most New Zealanders are concerned about child poverty, and rightly so. The latest figures show nearly one quarter of our 1.1 million children under 18 live in households with very low incomes after housing costs.
Hardship indicators show that 185,000 (17 per cent) of children, are missing out on many of their basic needs like a good bed, fresh fruit and vegetables, and basic clothing.
Many who are concerned about child poverty believe "paid work is the way out of poverty". However, that is not true for the 37 per cent of children in poverty who are supported by a parent whose income from low-paid work (with top-up from Working For Families) is too low.
Others believe that growing the economy is the way to get jobs. However, the proportion of New Zealand children in poverty has not changed much during periods of economic strength and economic weakness, illustrating that other solutions are needed. As Dr Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organisation, said this year, "Wealth does not trickle down".
In the 1980s the proportion of children in poverty was about half what it is now. The percentage doubled between 1991 and 1993, and has remained around this level since. What caused this increase in the numbers of children in poverty? This is an obvious place to look for strategies to halve the rate of children in poverty.
In the 1991 Budget, the universal child benefit was abolished, and income support benefits were cut by about 21 per cent, resulting in a doubling of children in poverty. Children in "beneficiary" families were particularly badly affected - the proportion of children in poverty supported by a benefit rose from 25 to 75 per cent and there it stays still, as the level of benefits has not been restored relatively and such families do not get the full package of child-related tax credits.
The intention in 1991 was also to drop the level of income support for the elderly (NZ Superannuation), but the political power of the old meant that those changes did not go through, and NZ Superannuation keeps up better than benefits for families.
With benefit-related income so low it is no wonder parents can't afford all the things that their children need for their wellbeing. I often see children in poverty in hospital. A typical patient would be an undernourished baby who is seriously sick and struggling to breathe with a chest infection brought on by living in an overcrowded, damp home which isn't heated because the family can't afford electricity. Under these conditions everyone living in the home, including the baby, is stressed.
Medical attention was delayed because the car had broken down, and they couldn't afford an ambulance. The baby will recover after several days in hospital on oxygen, but may be left with permanent damage to her lungs (bronchiectasis). With this disease she is likely to cough frequently, lack energy and miss a lot of school. She may become too sick to work, and may die as a young adult. If her parents had adequate income this baby may not have got sick, or not got so sick.
Some parents are unable to take up paid work at certain times. For example, if their livelihood is destroyed in an earthquake; if the local major employer closes down; if they suffer serious depression or disability; if one of their children has a terminal illness, is severely disabled, or has a serious chronic disease; if they leave their violent partner and their children are stressed; if they have young children. When a parent cannot work it is vital that our income safety-net is adequate for children at all times. At the moment it is not.
The 1991 Budget drove lots of children into poverty. We can lift them out by raising incomes for families on income support benefits and in low-paid work. Evidence shows that parents would spend the extra money on their children, and that it would improve societal outcomes. We can ask our Government to prioritise children in this way in the 2015 Budget. In the words of motivational speaker Rita Davenport "Money isn't everything ... but it's right up there with oxygen".