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A poverty of ideas

Monday 10 Sep 2012 11:32a.m.

A poverty of ideas

It is our great failing as a nation.

In August the Children’s Commissioner released a sobering report. 270,000 New Zealand children live in poverty. That’s around double the amount of children living in poverty just 30 years ago. It is a shocking, unacceptable number, and government after government has failed to address it.

Over the last two years there is no subject – save the Canterbury Earthquakes – that Campbell Live has done more stories on than poverty. And the disappointing thing is that whenever we do a story about poverty, no matter how many we do, we can almost write the responses:

1.      Where are the parents?

2.      They should take responsibility for their situation

3.      New Zealand doesn’t have real poverty like Asia or Africa.

They’re the same old retorts that are wheeled out every time. And you know what? I don’t buy them. They’re lazy responses, a convenient way of not addressing the issue.

We shouldn’t assume parents are boozing away benefit money. We shouldn’t suggest they aren’t doing everything they can to provide for their kids. We shouldn’t have to reach the point of children begging in the streets before we act. What’s more, we can’t ignore children in need. Whatever their situation, it’s not their fault.

Campbell Live has seen and reported on the grim reality many times. When the minimum after-tax income is just $455 per week, it doesn’t take much – a broken fridge, unexpected car repairs, school fees, a big power bill – to wipe out a bank account. Just what do you do when there’s no money left for to feed the kids?

The situation for many families, one principal recently told us, is that there is simply no money left for cigarettes or gambling.

Last week my colleague Kate King produced a story about schools teaching their pupils how to grow vegetables and feed themselves. It was an inspiring and encouraging initiative. Yet amongst the positive responses we received immediately after that piece, we also received emails from people unhappy at the suggestion schools should provide food for their pupils. Why? Because they said parents should be responsible. 

Again, that’s a lazy statement, and a short-sighted one. Because who suffers as a result? The parents being demonised? No. The victims are the blameless, hungry children.

In a perfect world, every parent would be able to feed their kids… this isn’t a perfect world.

Last year I spoke with Auckland City Missioner Diane Robertson, who told me that without their assistance, people would starve. It’s not that they’re necessarily doing anything wrong – they just don’t have enough money to live on. The Children’s Commissioner too, in his report, says it’s not because people are lazy, or irresponsible, or wicked that they struggle – it’s that they are poor.

From the report:

  • Poverty rates for children in beneficiary families are 6-7 times higher than households where at least one adult is in full-time work.
  • However, 35% of children living in poverty are from families where at least one adult has full-time work or is self-employed.
  • Children in sole-parent families experience significantly higher poverty rates (56%) than those in two-parent families (13%).
  • Poverty rates for Māori and Pasifika children are consistently higher than for Pākehā children – typically about double.

Brown people. Single income families. Beneficiaries. All three over-represented in the poverty stakes, and that means children from these groups are fighting a system that’s stacked against them from the start.

What’s that going to mean for their prospects down the line?

Poverty is a root cause of a host of negative effects further down the line. You want to curb crime rates? Health problems? Academic failure? Substance abuse? Unemployment rates? Domestic violence? Start by addressing poverty. 

For 270,000 children those are the prospects they’re faced with unless something is done to help them out of that situation. But no matter how many stories we do on this issue, no matter how much we talk about it, it seems there are never enough answers.

So what’s on the table?

Social Welfare Minister Paula Bennett says she welcomes the report from the Children’s Commissioner, and her department is currently producing a “white paper” on the subject.

The Green Party has a four-point action plan of addressing poverty and its causes.

Mana MP Hone Harawira has lodged a bill to provide free lunch and breakfasts to all children at decile 1 and 2 schools. It’s a start. For our poorest and most desperate children they’ll be going to school to learn, instead of going to school hungry.

This isn’t some revolutionary, left-wing suggestion – it is standard in schools throughout the UK, Europe and America. Always has been. Why is New Zealand any different?

Similarly, Labour leader David Shearer has announced his party would provide free meals in the country’s 650 poorest schools, at an estimated cost of up to $18 million.

In the scheme of things that’s not a lot of money… and the long term costs are far, far higher.

According the Children’s Commissioner the costs of poverty are estimated to be about 3 percent of GDP – that’s about $5 billion - every year.

Independent researcher John Pearce, who spent two years studying child poverty, estimates the cost is up to $10 billion.

These are obscene figures. And they don’t need to be.

Put simply, if we cared more as a country, it would cost us less.

Just recently I was reading Bill Bryson’s At Home, in which he describes the terrible conditions in Britain during the Industrial Revolution. People working horrendous hours for little pay. People coping with health and housing issues. People with not enough money to survive on a daily basis. These are scenes from 200 years ago, yet they still sound familiar today.

Eventually, widespread outrage and disgust at the conditions faced by Britain’s working poor led to the introduction of new safeguards and efforts to help society’s most vulnerable.

What are we doing?

You may not agree with Shearer’s announcement, or Harawira’s politics, or Bennett’s efforts, but they’re something. If you don’t agree with those suggestions, that’s fine, but let’s hear more. Pressure the politicians to come up with more. Donate to any of the numerous charities dedicated to helping those kids and families in need. For too long we, as a country, have done nothing.

If you don’t think the issue of child poverty in New Zealand is a problem, you’re dreaming.

And you’re part of the problem.

 
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