An ageing society that doesn't care for its young has a death wish, the eminent academic Dame Anne Salmond has observed.

She might have added, too, that such a society might fairly be described as extraordinarily stupid.

Or, if I might borrow from the Prime Minister's flippant dismissal last week of a key recommendation from yet another sobering child poverty report: seriously "dopey".

In the week a Dunedin study revealed that cannabis smoking before 18 causes significant long-term decline in IQ, it might pay us to be reminded that chronic poverty poses a potentially more toxic threat to children's developing brains.


How many reports on child poverty does it take to shame governments into action? Too many to recount here. The latest in a long line-up is from an independent group of experts commissioned by the Children's Commissioner, not all of whom can be dismissed as bleeding-heart lefties.

What the Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty makes patently clear is that child poverty isn't inevitable. International evidence shows that it can be reduced, with the right mix of policies: "Countries can choose how much child poverty they are prepared to tolerate."

Evidently, our tolerance levels are quite high: around 25 per cent of our children are in poverty, says the EAG; that's 270,000 children.

The advisory group points out that in the mid-1980s, the child poverty rate was about half what it is now. Did thousands of parents suddenly forget how to parent properly? Or were they the victims of policies that saw real incomes fall?

Here's a clue: according to a recent Ministry of Social Development report, household incomes fell for all but the top 10 per cent between 1988 and 2004. It took 20 years for real household incomes at the median to recover to early 1980s levels, and 25 years at the low end.

More recent statistics show that, between 2007 and 2011, hardship rates for children increased from 15 to 21 per cent. The Government blames the global financial crisis, not (for now, anyway) parental "poor choices".

The expert group has solutions, some ambitious, all "realistic, evidence-based, cost effective and fiscally responsible".

Among these is the return to a child benefit - universal to the age of 6, and then targeted after that ("dopey", said John Key); free meals in our poorest schools; and warrants of fitness for rental accommodation.

The group also supports an official poverty measure (necessary if we're to achieve a 30 per cent cut by 2022), and urges a review of child-related benefit rates, including the controversial in-work tax credit, which keeps the children of many working poor from falling below the poverty line, but pretends that there's a public good to ignoring the equally critical needs of the children of the unemployed.

The expert group points out, as others have, to the "lifetime scars" left by child poverty; poverty exacts enormous human and economic costs that we all end up paying one way or another.

One study has quantified the cost at 3 per cent of GDP annually, or around $6 billion to $8 billion, which makes the usual "can't-afford-it" response to child poverty policies all the more irrational.

We cannot afford the $3.3 million or so annually to provide food in our poorest schools, but, in tough times, we can afford a $12 billion "roads of national significance" programme of questionable economic benefit.

Reducing child poverty, says the EAG, will require "vision, courage and determination", qualities evidently in short supply.

Ignorance and the blame game let the Government off the hook. A faint-hearted, ill-informed public is too easily sidetracked by unrepresentative stories of blameworthy parents making poor choices.

Why do we talk about child poverty rather than family poverty?

Economist Brian Easton dates "the upwelling in research and thinking about children" back to the 1972 Royal Commission on Social Security. The research then showed that "poverty was mainly to do with children". "It is children who generate the majority of poverty - not being brown, or solo, or on the benefit, or a tenant ..."

(Around 40 per cent of poor children have at least one parent in full-time work, for example, and half of all children in poverty are Pakeha.)

That realisation led to an analytic framework that recognised that, essentially, "children are an investment in the future".

Easton: "If families under-invest in their children - and when they are seriously income constrained that is inevitable - the children will suffer. But so will society as a whole. Not only will the retired suffer when it becomes the younger generation's turn to fund them, but the under-invested children will cause more government spending - such as on law and order and health care - and other government spending - on education - will be inefficient."

Child poverty ought to tug at the heart-strings. We're talking about children, after all, and children are blameless.

And yet public ambivalence suggests hearts have hardened. Children cost; they are a luxury the poor cannot afford. And if poor children are going without, it is their parents' fault for having them in the first place.

Has the child poverty focus backfired on children? In acknowledging that children bear the brunt of poverty, and in talking about child poverty rather than family poverty, have we removed children from the context of their poverty, which is first and foremost their families, and encouraged the mindset that only children deserve help? Have we set up parents to take the fall for being poor?

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