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July 16, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Losing The Age Of Innocence

The NEglected Truth About New Zealand’s Poorest Children

“Go down to the children’s hospital in Wellington. Have a walk through the wards. They will be jam-packed with kids with illnesses they don’t need to have. Respiratory illnesses. Skin infections.”

“All of the diseases of child poverty in children have gone up,” continued Bryan Bruce, an award-winning New Zealand documentary maker. “We now have tuberculosis in NZ, which we didn’t have. We now have rheumatic fever, which we didn’t have. All of these third world diseases.”

In recent years, Bruce had noticed New Zealand had changed drastically from the country in which he had grown up–the New Zealand of the 1950s. So he made a documentary about it.

After two years of production, three days before last November’s election, Inside Child Poverty was screened on TV3 to an otherwise distracted electorate. The film claimed New Zealand now had a problem; one that ran contrary to the image of compassion that the country prided itself in. The film claimed that New Zealand has a problem with its children.

One in four children in New Zealand live in poverty, and this is not normal. A report published by UNICEF in May this year places New Zealand 20th out of 35 developed countries for child poverty. That report defines poverty as a household income that is 50 per cent or lower of the median in that country. However, this bar is set particularly low. More commonly, a 60 per cent of median income threshold is used. Viewed through that lens, the situation becomes even more alarming.

Of course, poverty is not simply a statistic. Comprehending what it actually is can be difficult—especially so in New Zealand, where the national esteem is based upon pride in a developed economy and a supposedly compassionate welfare system. But poverty is relative. It is measured with comparison to the income of others in that country rather than to an absolute standard. As such, an impoverished childhood in New Zealand looks quite different to the traditional images of famine, drought and slums that we tend to associate with poverty.

Last year, researching Inside Child Poverty, Bruce visited a primary school in eastern Porirua, just 25 minutes drive from Victoria University, and witnessed the symptoms of child poverty. The school there was struggling to provide breakfast for their pupils, a task that had fallen on the school due to the inability of parents to provide.

“[Poverty] means that [children] probably don’t have a raincoat to wear to school. It means that their parents probably can’t afford to change their shoes to prevent them from leaking. It probably means they went to school today without breakfast,” Bruce told Salient. “It’s a relative poverty, but it’s a very real poverty because it is causing our children to get diseases they absolutely do not have to have.”

In the absence of stereotypical signs such as slums and homelessness, the health of the child is where the symptoms of poverty lie. According to the National Health Committee “income is the single most important determinant of health”. It is in taking a close look at comparative health statistics, that the situation looks most severe. New Zealand ranks second to last of 30 countries in the 2009 OECD rankings for children, edging out only Turkey—and falling behind Mexico, a country with a GDP per capita of just over half of New Zealand’s. This is not a record that sits comfortably with a country proud of its high quality of life.

The health problems that make up these statistics are the kind that Bruce witnessed at Wellington Hospital: illnesses associated with damp and overcrowded housing, such as respiratory illness, skin diseases and pneumatic fever. These kinds of afflictions are aggravated by a weak immunity caused by poor nutrition—itself a consequence of poor education.

The effects of this cycle begin at birth and stay for life. A recent report published by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) details the effects. These illnesses affect both the child’s mental and physical development, and because these children are more likely to be born with low birth weights, they have a higher risk of low IQ and consequently poorer educational outcomes.

Let’s consider a child with bronchial illness. That child will likely require monthly hospital treatment throughout their childhood—and often into adulthood. This means absence from school and that means they fall behind their peers.

When extrapolated over the long-term, the consequences are grave. Children raised in poorer families have higher rates of heart disease, poor dental health and are more susceptible to drug abuse as adults—regardless of their eventual income. Most clearly, these children have an overall shorter life expectancy: they die sooner.

These are all preventable illnesses caused by poor housing conditions and poor access to healthcare. Not only are the illnesses themselves preventable, but so too is the entire issue of child poverty, according to UNICEF’s May report. While poverty may not be immutable, its harmful extremes can be tempered by legislative change. In other words, good government policy can reduce child poverty.

Yet when compared to other wealthy countries, government spending on children and families is significant in New Zealand, constituting 3 per cent of GDP. Much of this spending is channelled toward programmes like the Working For Families scheme introduced by the Clark Labour Government, which serves to offer tax credits to lower income families. Money is being thrown at New Zealand’s children, but the fact remains: one in four of them are in poverty, and the trends are not improving. Clearly, the current spending on the issue is either misdirected or simply insufficient. Where is it going wrong?

UNICEF speculates that the money is simply being spent on the wrong things, focussing on remedial objectives, rather than addressing the underlying issues. Bruce agrees. Following the release of Inside Child Poverty, funding nationally for rheumatic fever treatment was doubled. While this does not by any means seem a loss, Bruce claims that this reaction is indicative of a fundamentally superficial approach by the Government. “$24 million, frankly, isn’t going to solve the rheumatic fever problem,” he says. “What we have to do is solve the housing problem. We have to make our houses warm and dry.”

Alan Johnson, a social policy analyst from CPAG, notes that this approach is not just the fault of the current National Government. “Five or six years ago, under a Labour government, when CPAG tried to speak of child poverty, we were ignored and derided and howled down as though there was no problem,” he says. “Now there is a genuine acknowledgement that there is a problem from politicians right across the political spectrum, including the National Party.”

But Johnson welcomes more public discussion. He worries that much of the current conversation surrounding the issue is distracting from the real problem. He points to the Green Paper on Vulnerable Children released in 2011: “[it was] a distraction and really avoided some of the bigger questions about inequality across neighbourhoods and across communities.” Focusing on visceral examples of abuse and neglect, argues Johnson, is a political strategy that “[attempts] to present people living on benefits as being something other than ordinary citizens.”

CPAG focuses on Labour’s Working For Families scheme as the most destructive manifestation of this philosophy. The tax credit—the money that goes toward the children—is decided by the working status of the child’s parents; the children of beneficiaries receive less money. Bruce is critical of this approach. “Take a look at the legislation from the child’s point of view and it is discriminatory,” he says. “You don’t get a say as to whether your mum and dad work, but we’ll give you $60 if they do. If they don’t, we won’t.”

Whether or not public discussion on the issue has increased, the Government is not agitating for change. Despite media scrutiny—however fleeting—on the green paper, the issue has simply disappeared from the Government’s agenda. There is not a single mention of the issue in its extensive post-election action plan.

Salient sought comment from both the Minister of Social Development and Employment Paula Bennett and the Associate Minister Tariana Turia. Neither responded. While the recession of the last four years and the Canterbury earthquakes have certainly forced the Government to tighten its belt, it cannot be claimed that there is no money to put towards tackling child poverty. According to Treasury, 3.5 per cent of GDP is spent on superannuation, despite the fact that poverty amongst New Zealand’s elderly ranks the lowest in the OECD. The current prioritisation of the elderly over the young is not due to necessity, but is because—unlike the elderly—children have no political voice. (NZ First almost exclusively serves the interests of the over 60s.) While austerity may not permit the Government to launch large-scale spending programmes, this does not excuse poor prioritisation. Action to protect the society’s most vulnerable must be afforded.

Aside from the unconscionable human cost of poverty, the economic evidence further indicates the error of inaction. While no comprehensive studies have been done as to the long-term implications of an impoverished childhood for an individual’s future earning potentials, research from the United Kingdom indicates that growing up in poverty reduces future earning potential by as much as 28 per cent.

Not only is that lost income for the individual, it is a cost to society. CPAG points to international studies that conclude that the cumulative impact of reduced productivity, increased risk of ill health, and increased rates of criminality costs New Zealand between 3.8 and 4.6 per cent of GDP—an annual cost of around $4,000 per wage earner. More people that are poorer for longer with poor education and healthcare equates to more people that must be supported by the government—thus the taxpayer—for longer.

The problem is a matter of perspective. While it is practically necessary to consider the interests of a child with reference to the circumstances of their caregivers, children are often discussed as if either the property of, or a part of, their parents. The rhetoric too often implies that poverty is either the child’s fault, or that they deserve to pay for the faults of their parents; the focus is on the culpability of the parents for being in a position of hardship. This is the problem reflected in legislation such as Working For Families. It seems the hackneyed aphorism ‘you don’t choose your family’ is more apt than ever.

Bruce laments the attitude that has lead to such a grand failure. “You get people saying ‘Why should I pay for children’s lunches of other parents who can’t look after their kids?’ Well, parenting is a completely different concern to the community responsibility we have to the health of all of our children.”

Perhaps he is correct: there is only one chance to get it right for each child. Time is a one-way street and the moral failure that each child living in poverty represents cannot simply be redeemed by a promised quick-fix in the indeterminate future. ▲

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About the Author ()

Ollie served dutifully alongside Asher Emanuel as Co-editor of Salient throughout the tumult of 2012. He has contributed to Salient since 2011 and intends to do so for the rest of his waking life.

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