Nz Child Welfare a Disgrace

Listener: 28 October, 2011.

Keywords: Social Policy;

Is New Zealand the best place in the world to bring up children? A report from economist David Grimmond, The Effectiveness of Public Investment in New Zealand Children, suggests not. After combining 26 indicators of children’s welfare from 30 OECD countries – ranging from drunkenness, bullying and suicide to overcrowding, educational deprivation and public spending – Grimmond found we came 28th, ahead of Mexico and Turkey but behind every other country. It’s hard to say it, but we’re an international disgrace.

How did the disgrace come about? In 1974 researchers identified children and their parents as the largest group of the poor in New Zealand. It was a revolutionary finding. The poor were not beneficiaries, for many poor households depended on wages. (Already, provision for the aged was keeping most of them above the poverty line.)

It was not just solo parents and their children, as more two-parent families were in poverty; it was not just tenants, as more were pinned down by a mortgage; and it was not just Maori and Pasifika, as more were Pakeha. The poverty rates were higher in each of the former groups, but the latter groups involved more people, so they had a larger share of the total of the poor.

What did we do about it? We tut-tutted. We said poverty did not really matter. In truth, at the time there was not a lot of direct evidence that it did. But over the years the research, little of it publicly funded, has brought together a mass of evidence that shows poverty does matter. The recently published Child Poverty Action Group’s report, Left Further Behind: How Policies Fail the Poorest Children in New Zealand, summarises a lot of it.

Various half-hearted attempts have been made to address child poverty, but the problem has been too big for the small-minded to tackle. Often the interventions were poorly targeted and even more poorly designed – the Working For Families package is about as clumsy as it gets. Worse though is the proposal put to me recently that a high minimum wage would reduce child poverty. There may be other reasons to hike the minimum wage, but many of those on it don’t have children; many with children are not on it – some are not on any wage; and the minimum wage does not discriminate between large families and poor families. There are too many people with opinions they don’t think through; some of these people are politicians.

Why don’t we put in an effort to deal with deprivation among our children? The short answer is that children can’t vote, and often their parents don’t vote, sometimes because they are so overwhelmed by the day-to-day pressures of poverty. Give the children a vote and I bet the politicians would take notice of them. Kissing babies would become popular. Instead it will be a miracle if children are a significant issue in the election campaigns over the next month.

What to do? The Every Child Counts coalition argues we should focus on the first thousand days of life (together with the pre-birth period). That would be a beginning, although the Child Poverty Action Group report shows there is much to be done after the first three years. But there is an interesting difference within the community committed to giving children a better deal. What should be the approach to mothers working?

Most thinking about poverty measurement is based on the model we developed in the early 1970s – today’s users are largely unaware of its assumptions. We need to review those about working mothers, which reflected the norms of four decades ago, although the model is probably robust enough to be developed rather than rejected.

In those 40-odd years, children have been born into the deprivation the research identified, grown up in it and borne children into similar deprivation, who in turn have borne children growing up in further deprivation. Three generations. Is it going to be four?