Child poverty: a key election issue
Last night TV3 aired a documentary that every New Zealander should watch before the election, Inside Child Poverty, which traces Bryan Bruce's six month investigation into child poverty in our country and our appalling statistics. In this documentary, Bruce exposes some of the fallacies around the argument that such poverty is self-inflicted.
These fallacies have been amplified during the election campaign, which is part of the nature of politics and perhaps part of the problem around having two dominant parties attempting to differentiate themselves under an MMP system. A large proportion of the debate in the election has centered around these fallacies because they move voters, even if in reality we are talking about very small numbers of people. For example, I have already detailed how Paula Bennett herself admitted on Q+A that the number of women on a benefit with a dependent child of 14 having another baby was only 70 mothers last year, which amounts to 0.0015% of the population. Or how drug testing in Florida only caught out 2.5% of beneficiaries, and the programme was halted by a Federal Judge in late October who argued that the drug testing was based on a faulty rationale. Likewise, too, is the announced policy that National will stop funding to students who are exceeding 2-2.5 EFTs of study in a full-time year. This sounds aggressive, unless you know about EFTs and then you would know that it is near impossible for students to do this. Similarly, we could also look at the way public and private debt have been conflated in discussions over the economy. What we are left with under this partisan system is an election where debate over the big issues is eclipsed by debate over the issues that will win votes, and these two are not necessarily the same thing.
While it is tempting to compare running the country to paying off a mortgage or running a small business as many commentators do, these are bad analogies. The basic fact is that running a country is a lot more complex than either and to explain it in such rudimentary terms undercuts the impact that such changes can have socially. Bruce's documentary last night was important because it highlighted some of the issues around this in relation to child poverty and busted myths in a manner that an extensive debate over one beneficiary's decision to have Sky is not able to. First, child poverty is not just beneficiaries, but it is the working poor also. We know this from the rise in use of food banks by people that are employed. For clarification purposes, it is useful to highlight that the working poor are not families with a combined income of $100,000 (as I have seen so many people argue), but they are people often working multiple jobs on the minimum wage. While our unemployment figures still remain lower than the US or the UK, we haven't really had much study into the casualization of the workforce in New Zealand so we are not sure how many people might be underemployed. According to the NOHSAC Technical Report 10 released in 2008, we have not had any serious investigation into this since the 1990s. This is of concern as we have had more recently moves to casualise the workforce even further, with the 90 day trial period being introduced. These changes tend to push people into longer and less traditional hours, and tend to disproportionately affect the poorest groups in society such as Maori and Polynesians having a flow on impact for childcare. These are people with young children, which makes Key's use of retirement figures during the TV3 Leaders' Debate on Monday to argue that this proportion has declined disingenuous.
Bruce's comparison of New Zealand childcare with that of Sweden is well done, particularly because this is a country that features prominently in the Welfare Working Group's Report as providing a comparison to New Zealand. We simply do not have the structures that they do in Scandinavian countries to buttress some of the changes that they are discussing. Watching the documentary it is not surprising that children are getting sick due to the shocking dampness of our houses. Insulating houses is one thing, but we need to be very careful that we are not penalizing parents further and we need to increase spending on our children. As Gareth Morgan illustrated in Inside Child Poverty, comparative international studies have shown that by insuring that our children are fed at school, live in warm houses and have access to healthcare pays off $4 to every $1 spent. We do not need another Green Paper which is simply tantamount to another public discussion over statistics we have known for years, we actually need to increase the spending in this area and this should be a key issue in this election.