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Editorial: back to basics

This country’s high level of child poverty is unacceptable. So, what are we going to do about it?

It was not the uplifting news a country wants to hear two weeks before Christmas. One in four children is said to live in poverty. One in six is described as going without basic necessities – a timely doctor’s visit, a proper bed to sleep in and regular meals.

Getty Images/Listener photo illustration

It’s not poverty as people in Bangladesh and Samoa might understand it. Poverty here is defined as living in a household with less than 60% of the national median income, after housing costs. It’s all relative. Nonetheless, the level of childhood deprivation is a source of shame for a relatively wealthy country that prides itself on its traditions of egalitarianism and social justice.

The issue has been brought into sharp focus by the first annual Child Poverty Monitor report commissioned by Children’s Commissioner Dr Russell Wills. A paediatrician, Wills brings an unusual fervour to his role, perhaps because he sees daily evidence of child illnesses in which poverty – reflected in poor-quality housing, lack of good nutrition and inadequate access to medical services – is a contributor.

According to Wills, the poorest 10% of infants are 10 times more likely to be hospitalised with bronchiolitis than the richest 10%. Such illnesses often occur when children’s brains are developing, raising the prospect that they will be held back for life – a tragedy that should never occur.

It’s hard to argue with Wills’ call for the Government to formulate a plan for tackling child poverty and to set targets. If it can be done with the road toll, he says, why not child poverty? But poverty is infinitely more complex. He acknowledges that the Government has already moved on home insulation, early childhood education and immunisation. Indeed, measures to address poverty accounted for more than $900 million in new funding in the last Budget. The Government also plans to test a housing warrant of fitness scheme under which landlords would be required to ensure hot and cold water, a shower or bath, a functioning toilet, basic insulation and draught-stopping. The provision of such basic amenities hardly seems an oppressive imposition on property owners.

But although such measures deal with symptoms of poverty, eradicating the core problem calls for a more holistic, long-term approach. Education is crucial. Literacy and numeracy offer a pathway out of poverty; a point well illustrated by the dedicated teacher in a low-income area of Porirua who, in a radio news item on the child poverty report, reflected proudly on the number of his former pupils who had broken the poverty cycle.

We can all get involved: many New Zealanders play important volunteer roles in groups ranging from SuperGrans – older women imparting life skills to struggling families – to people in the Books in Homes scheme and those who offer their time to help beginning readers of all ages. Unlike many ills, we know the cure for illiteracy. And we can all help, even if it’s the simple Christmas present of a book for a child in need.

But at the heart of the issue lie difficult political and moral choices. Wills’ expert group has sensibly proposed shifting welfare support from older middle-class families to the youngest and poorest, but beyond that the options are harder. Simply increasing welfare payments would mean a transfer of wealth from the productive sector, running the risk that economic growth – the surest means of lifting people out of poverty – would be slowed. The Government will also be alert to the danger of making benefits appear more attractive. Given that poverty is worst among those dependent on benefits, that could be counterproductive.

The goal is to help people into work. It is simply not true, as many claim, that inequality is increasing in New Zealand. The Ministry of Social Development’s latest Household Incomes Report shows the widest gap actually occurred in the mid-2000s and peaked in 2004. There is no evidence of any general rise or fall in income inequality since 2007. Top earners are paying more tax, whereas single-earner two-child families with an income less than about $60,000 from wages pay no net income tax.

Such issues will be fiercely debated in 2014, when child poverty promises to be a defining issue in the general election. But it should not be a debate about whether poverty is acceptable, because it should never be.

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