On child poverty

Last night, if you missed Bryan Bruce’s brilliant TV3 documentary on child poverty in New Zealand –or would like your relatives and friends to see it – the relevant link is here.

What Bruce simply and clearly demonstrated was that the diseases of poverty are preventable. Moreover Bruce showed them to be the products of a market ideology that has failed most New Zealanders, and is now blighting the lives of hundreds of thousands of this nation’s children.

Diseases that all but vanished from Europe decades ago are now rife in parts of this country – and only the state can fix the problem. Just as it always has done in New Zealand, from the 1930s onwards.

As Bruce shows, a range of supportive measures (some of which used to be available in New Zealand) have been central to the success of countries that he visited, such as Sweden. These measures include children’s food programmes at school, comprehensive state assistance to assist poorer families into quality housing, free 24 hour access to GPs for children, enlightened policies on paid parental leave etc etc.

The outcomes prove his point. Sweden has all but eradicated certain diseases of poverty among its children, while in New Zealand preventable illnesses such as rheumatic fever, respiratory diseases and skin sores are rife, largely due to the poor, overcrowded conditions in which people are being forced to live, in houses which they cannot afford to heat adequately.

Are the solutions affordable? Leaving aside our over-riding duty of care to the children involved, treating these diseases once they have taken hold is far more costly than taking the preventive actions to eradicate the disease in the first place. There is always an alternative. It just comes down to what the priorities are seen to be.

The costs of what would make a significant difference are minimal. In September 2009, the Child Poverty Action Group estimated [PDF] that the cost of a breakfast-in-schools programme within all of our one to three decile schools would be $36 million. The current government spent 50 times that amount on bailing out the investors in South Canterbury Finance. It also chose to cut the tax revenues that could have funded programmes to assist the families of the poor, and gave that money disproportionately to the wealthy.

In his programme, Bruce advocated putting politics to one aide, and creating a multi-party framework to address child poverty, something akin to the multi-party accord that we negotiated in the early 1990s to resolve the issues facing national superannuation. The partisan ugliness of Social Development Minister Paula Bennett’s response in Parliament to the recent recommendations by the Child Poverty Action Group shows just how far we are from taking such a sensible step.

Within National’s second term, the plans for reform will extend a welfare bashing approach to the problems of child poverty. From Bruce’s evidence, these reforms will require more solo parents to leave sick children at home. They will also have to cut back on heating, food and GP visits to pay for such things as transport, as they chase non-existent jobs in order to continue to qualify for a benefit. The real victim of this short sighted, punitive policy will be the children – who will continue to be punished because of the employment status of their parents.

Going into this election, the Greens seem to have fashioned the most co-ordinated policy package to address the problems that Bruce has highlighted. Their approach has four related components:

1. Working for Families has to be made available to every low-income family, regardless of whether they are in paid work or not
Currently, to provide an incentive to work, New Zealand makes WFF available to the working poor, but not to the beneficiary poor. This may make some sense when jobs are plentiful – but it makes no sense at all and becomes punitive and socially damaging during a recession. Currently, tens of thousands of New Zealand children are being made to suffer extreme hardship through no fault of their own, but merely because of the success and/or luck of their parents in finding paid work. Under the Greens plan, the extension of WFF would provide an extra $60 per week to 140,000 of the poorest households in New Zealand.

2. Provide better study support for sole parents and beneficiaries
As both Labour and the Greens have pointed out, there used to be support for sole parents to study at university, and it was a successful programme : parents moved off the benefit some six months earlier and went into higher paying jobs. That scheme has been axed by National. Labour and the Greens have pledged to re-instate and extend this support which – the Greens estimate – would help 10,000 people get a higher education and take better care of their kids.

3. Raise the minimum wage to help working parents
This is not merely a matter – as John Key argued in the TV3 debate on Monday night – of creating wealth by the stroke of a pen. It involves a fairer distribution of existing wealth. Some minimum wage workers are employed for instance, in aged care – a sector that is bound to grow as the population ages. These workers care for our elderly. They wash them, feed them and sit with them when they are dying. Many of them get paid only at or near the minimum wage, while foreign investors in this sector take significant profits out of the country. Many of these workers are also solo parents. By raising the minimum wage to $15 immediately, these working parents would be better able to meet the essential needs of their children. Again, the Greens estimate this change would be worth about $60 more per week for someone working full time on the minimum wage.

4. Make sure rental properties are warm and healthy for kids
As Bruce pointed out in his documentary, we have warrant of fitness standards for our cars, to ensure that vehicles will not be a safety menace to those on the roads. Yet we don’t have similar regulations for our houses. A working toilet, a sink and a wall socket is about all that landlords are required by law to provide, before being able to make money from renting out their properties.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of New Zealand children live in cold, damp houses which make them sick. The footage in Bruce’s documentary of the rampant mould in the houses that he visited was really appalling. Besides the pain that the children affected are experiencing, there are subsequent costs to the health system that are entirely preventable – if there was a willingness in government to impose a minimal code of performance standards for our housing stock, and to provide enhanced funding for the home insulation programme. Next year, the existing programme may well have to compete with the Christchurch rebuild for tradespeople with the necessary skills.

All up, the Greens estimate that such a comprehensive programme “would cost “approximately $360 million per year for the next three years – less than 0.3 percent of GDP.” Personally, I’d add in the meals-at-schools programme advocated in 2009 by the Child Poverty Action Group, and fund it initially at around $50 million a year, for a grand total of $410 million. Not much at all. Not in a context where we are spending some $29 billion on the nation’s roads. It seems like a pipe dream though, given the current political climate where Paula Bennett and her expert advisors in the Welfare Working Group are placing such little value on the task of parenting. Solo parenting ? They intend to make it harder.

Even if we feel pretty lukewarm about the options facing us on Saturday, perhaps we should be thinking of casting a vote to better protect the children in this country who are most at risk. From economic conditions, and from the policies and priorities currently in place.


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