Editorial: Feed the children

by Listener Archive / 03 September, 2012
It’s a no-brainer: for very little government money, kids in need can eat well every school day.
New Zealand Listener - Feed the children


Amid the disturbing new statistics on the gap between the haves and the have-nots, one simple idea for fostering equality stands out for its sheer common sense: school lunches. The Expert Advisory Group on Child Poverty has given a list of recommendations to the Children’s Commissioner, but the simplest and most cost efficient idea is to extend the existing patchwork of free-lunch services to all low-decile schools. For $3.3 million a year – effectively small-change at the bottom of the public purse – the Food for Kids model, which provides a nutritious daily lunch at 223 schools, could be extended to all 861 low-decile primary and intermediate schools. It is hard to overstate the difference this would make. We know that hungry children don’t learn. They can be disruptive and disengaged. And yet a compelling consensus emerged from paediatricians who supported the efforts of chef Jamie Oliver to improve school lunches in British schools: a single nutritious meal a day can make a huge difference to a child’s physical and emotional well-being. It’s hard to see how this could fail to lift children’s achievement at school. We would see the evidence within a year. And this tiny investment would have cost-saving spin-offs in justice and welfare.

We already know that when parents on low incomes fail to manage their budget, it severely affects their children’s nutrition and health. Charitable groups, with some help from the Government, have done creditable work to fill the gaps, but it is surely time for taxpayers to step up. The lunches need not be elaborate or expensive: a wholesome sandwich, baked beans on toast, a milk drink, some fresh fruit. It is pointless to persist, as some critics do, with the argument that feeding a child is the parents’ responsibility. The Government is powerless, beyond trialling a few radical new moves like drug-testing of beneficiaries, to turn deadbeat parents into good parents. Meanwhile, children go hungry. If only the rest of the Children’s Commissioner-fostered report was so beautifully logical – or the claims and statistics surrounding the equality gap in New Zealand so easy to analyse and address. There have, for instance, been claims that only half the wealthy pay income tax. But this is not as meaningful a statistic as it appears. A very low number of high earners pay tax through the PAYE system. But the Government has received more revenue since it increased GST to 15%. The wealthy also pay other taxes, such as on trust income.

There is no doubt that income inequality is expanding. Extrapolations from the Household Income Survey show the gap declined for a couple of years up to 2010, but has since increased. This is a cause for concern, but hardly surprising given the global financial crisis. Recessions always hit poorer people harder. The gap’s growth has brought the inevitable calls for more progressive income tax. But tellingly, when the top tax rate was increased to 39% in 2001, it resulted in those in the top tax bracket paying appreciably less tax. Punitive tax on the skilled workforce will only accelerate our devastating rate of emigration. However, by generally accepted measurement, 20% of children are living in what we regard as poverty – two out of five, despite having working parents. This is not third-world poverty, but entails kids going cold and hungry, something no New Zealander wants. With this in mind, the report to the Children’s Commissioner recommended the restoration of a universal child payment, à la the Family Benefit. Although even a small amount of extra money can make a great difference in a poor household, universal benefits enrich the non-needy, with no guarantee that the needy will spend the money on their children.

The way forward is more likely to be through targeting benefits directly to the child, through education, school meals, free doctors’ visits, immunisation programmes, home-insulation subsidies and the like. Politicians will continue to make their legitimate yet contradictory claims about what the Household Income Survey tells us about equality in New Zealand. But right now there are cold, sick and hungry children who deserve direct state action, not as a matter of politics or ideology but as a matter of humanity.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Named and shamed: What political parties' candidate lists really reveal
75039 2017-06-25 00:00:00Z Politics

Named and shamed: What political parties' candidat…

by Bevan Rapson

Tortuously compiled candidate lists give a window into each party’s soul.

Read more
With its race riots and Vietnam War, we're nothing like US half a century ago
75341 2017-06-25 00:00:00Z World

With its race riots and Vietnam War, we're nothing…

by Bill Ralston

If the Aussies hadn’t laid false claim to the title, this could be called the lucky country.

Read more
Film review: Churchill
75352 2017-06-25 00:00:00Z Movies

Film review: Churchill

by Peter Calder

A film portraying Churchill on the eve of D-Day paints him as an uncertain hero.

Read more
Book review: Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami
75423 2017-06-25 00:00:00Z Books

Book review: Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

by Nicholas Reid

A Japanese maestro is at his best in this new short-story collection.

Read more
The incredible vanishing TV
75300 2017-06-25 00:00:00Z Technology

The incredible vanishing TV

by Peter Griffin

Televisions no fatter than four credit cards are here, but you’ll need to bulk up your card limit to buy one.

Read more
Cutting costs: The perils of buying a chainsaw
73472 2017-06-25 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Cutting costs: The perils of buying a chainsaw

by Rebecca Hayter

Rookie lifestyler Rebecca Hayter on sawing the wood for the trees.

Read more
Hell and high water: When climate change comes lapping at your door
73401 2017-06-24 00:00:00Z Environment

Hell and high water: When climate change comes lap…

by Anke Richter

The world’s first climate change refugee now lives in a quiet Dunedin suburb. For Sigeo Alesana, life in this southern city is a long was from home.

Read more
Film review: Rosalie Blum
75175 2017-06-24 00:00:00Z Movies

Film review: Rosalie Blum

by Peter Calder

Rosalie Blum is a charming comedy of déjà vu and stalking.

Read more