Child poverty in New Zealand
Is John Key such an inspirational leader that he deserves to enjoy the support of 57% of New Zealand voters? Is Phil Goff such a hopeless leader that he deserves the support of only 8% of New Zealand voters? Has the National Party’s record in office been so impressive that it deserves to enjoy the support of 56% of New Zealand voters, including one might surmise, a significant number of Labour defectors? And has the Labour opposition been so feeble that it deserves the support of only 30% of New Zealand voters?
Well, if the polls are right – and there is no great difference between one and another – then the answer to all of these questions would seem to be Yes. But are they right? The extremity of their findings – the adulation of John Key and the seeming invisibility of Phil Goff; National having twice as much support as Labour – seems curious, given the parlous state of the economy, the high level of unemployment and the near-Third-World conditions in which so many of our citizens, both adults and children, are currently living.
Brian Edwards raises a question that is worth asking in this blog: why is the National government receiving so much support under economic conditions which for one in four children mean living in poverty?
The notion of poverty is contentious in New Zealand. This is perhaps why the debate is failing to gain traction. One only had to watch Back Benchers the other night to see the crux of the debate in action - it is difficult for New Zealanders to call their own poor, in comparison with global conditions. These are, after all, the global poor that most in this country are aware of who pick their tea, make their shoes, and sew their designer brands. This is hardly surprising considering that national debates have erupted over the last few weeks over Adidas jumpers costing $220 when they cost $8 to make; we are now in the kind of globalized world where we are aware of global inequality, and the contrast between our own kids and the images that we see on TV often leads people to overlook the poverty in our own society.
While the National government has made cuts to early childhood education and is placing increasing pressure on beneficiaries as a result of the plan to get 100,000 beneficiaries into work, the effects of the quite serious poverty that affects one in four children in New Zealand seems to be hardly making its mark in the mainstream media, which tends to focus on upbeat stories that boost ratings or appeal to the demographics with disposable income that can be sold on to advertisers. The 25% of children that are in poverty are read through the lens of crime statistics in this environment, which tends to reinforce narratives that position the threat of poverty as one that can be individually sold through effort, as foretold in John Key's own rags to riches story, or as one that is not a white problem. This is not to say that National have not made some important incentives towards reducing child poverty - whanau ora is one - but that by and large, these concessions have been made under the pressure of supply and demand agreements, and lack overall organization and cohesiveness. To put it bluntly, it is difficult to construct cohesive social policy when Key has to run the gambit between the hard right elements of his party who believe in minimizing government intervention and the appeal to ideas of social justice that must be made in order to appease the so-called centre ground.
The research that is emerging on poverty in this country is very clear: it does exist, regardless of whether the poverty is relative in global terms. People who are in poverty are defined as those that earn 60% less than the median income. A UN Committee Report on the Rights of the Child found that cuts in early childhood education were having a significant impact on our appalling levels of child poverty. We have made headlines in Australia for ranking 28th out of 30 in the OECD in the Every Child Counts report. We spend only 1.5% of our GDP on social services for the early days of life. As Executive Director of UNICEF in New Zealand Dennis McKinlay argues, "New Zealand spends $US14,600 ($NZ17,500) per child whilst, in comparison, Scandinavian countries spend $US50,000 per child under six. Other countries, like the Netherlands, spend less but have better outcomes. The stark reality is that poor outcomes for children are costing New Zealand $NZ6 billion per year in areas such as health, welfare services, crime and justice."
Take for example the Children's Social Monitoring Group's Report that was released yesterday, which found that:
In New Zealand, children and young people living in more deprived areas experience significantly worse health outcomes across a range of measures (e.g. infant mortality, hospital admissions for infectious and respiratory diseases, non-accidental injuries) . Growing up in a low income family also increases the risk of longer term negative outcomes, such as leaving school without formal qualifications and economic inactivity.
Similarly, Dr Elizabeth Craig highlighted the links between child poverty and health outcomes yesterday.
As the economic downturn progresses in New Zealand, hospital admissions for children with poverty-related conditions such as asthma, pneumonia and skin infections has increased, Dr Elizabeth Craig, of the University of Otago, says.
"We've got to really look at the impact our economic environment has on our kids," the head of the university's Children and Youth Epidemiology Service said yesterday.
She was commenting on the Children's Social Monitor's 2011 update which is to be released today at a public forum at the University of Otago in Wellington.
Dr Craig said they could not prove the uncertain economic times were the cause of the hospital admissions as the data provided was anonymous, but it was "concerning".
While the rapid increases in children's hospital admissions for "socioeconomically sensitive" medical conditions seen during 2007 to 2009 appeared to have slowed, rates rose further in 2010, with 4890 extra admissions per year compared with 2007.
It is costing us socially and economically to have these levels of poverty. As Professor Innes Ashir, the head of the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Auckland highlights in her open letter to the Ministerial Group of Welfare Reforms, the current policies are punitive on solo parents whose children already face many challenges. The equation is simple: penalize parents and you will pass on the stress to their children. Reducing the threshold for abatement of earnings to $20 as proposed by the Welfare Working Group will mean that for every $100 a parent earns, they will take home $40 (ibid). Perhaps the most telling social statistic is that New Zealanders are only 6th in the OECD with the percentage of the working population in paid work (ibid), meaning that the myth that parents are in this situation to breed and out of generations of welfare dependence is a damaging one.
Child poverty is a serious problem that affects every thread of our social fabric and must be addressed through a cohesive approach. Labour intends to establish a Children's Commissioner if elected (I have to agree with Annette King on this one that it seems ridiculous that we have a Gambling Commissioner and not someone who represents the rights of our children), Mana intends to address poverty more generally, but it is the Greens in this instance that have the most comprehensive social policy for lifting 100,000 kids out of poverty. ACT have some policies that, while arguably well meaning in nature (establish mentors, etc), work to further extend the current National government's raison d'être of penalizing parents for their inability to find work. Whatever your perspective, it is clear that there are serious social issues that deserve discussion.