Child Poverty


Today  the Herald published a story lamenting the extra cost of local, free-range and organic foods, the very foods we’re being encouraged to buy and eat.  They estimate that the clean, green Kiwi options cost us on average 25% more. For people on a limited budget, that isn’t an option at all.

Indeed. So worth remembering that when people call for certain types of food (battery hen eggs, intensive pig farming) to be banned, the result hits the poorest in society the most.

The Taranaki Daily News got closer to the heart of the problem with a story headlined ‘Free food draws poor kids to class’.  It quotes principals from Taranaki schools who say that some of their students rely on their school to provide breakfast and even lunch, just to survive.

in New Zealand is a problem we often conveniently ignore, preferring to see our country as a land of milk and honey.  Unfortunately, milk and honey are off the menu for hundreds of thousands of Kiwis. More than 200,000 of our kids are living below the line; over 48,000 of them go to school without breakfast. 

The poverty line is of course the relative poverty line. As the median income increases, the poverty line increases. A family may have their income increase more than the cost of living increase, but still fall below the poverty line because other people’s income has increased even further.

A relative poverty line is normally 50% or 60% of the median wage. I tend to think this is not that useful a measure of poverty – it is more a measure of income inequality – and they are not the same thing.

I find the most useful measure is the four-yearly Living Standards Survey by MSD. It actually asks a representative sample of 5,000 households questions such as whether they have stuff such as phones, cars, contents insurance, enough space, a computer, warm clothes, proper meals etc and whether they would like to have them if they could afford them. This measures actual deprivation over 42 criteria. They also ask if people do various things to save money such not filling prescriptions to save money, buying second hand clothing etc. It is (in my opinion) a far more sophisticated measure of families suffering deprivation due to low income, than merely comparing household income to the median household income.

This is a disgrace. No child in this country should go hungry. No New Zealand child should be cold or ill-clothed or living in an unhealthy or overcrowded house.  No child should be denied an education just because learning is too hard when you arrive at school cold, wet and hungry – if you get there at all.

I agree no child should go to school hungry. However the reasons why more children are going to school hungry is more complex than just assuming it is because they can’t afford it. Even using Judy’s figures, 3/4 of those with incomes below the poverty line do send their kids to school fed. So how do they manage to do so, yet not other families?

Over the last 20 years, the welfare state has given more money to those on welfare who have children. I don’t have exact data (yet), but the level of support has increased beyond inflation.

The government has prioritised a number of policies to stimulate the economy in an effort to get us out of the current recession. None of these policies, to my mind, tackles head-on the most urgent task of all – eliminating ‘child poverty’.

This should be the number one priority. Nothing is more important. Nothing is going to stimulate the economy better in the long run than having our kids grow up healthy and well educated.  It’s a damn sight more important than ultra-fast broadband and super-highways.

Without an growing economy, then we do not generate sufficient tax revenue to help lower income families.

So long as child poverty is based on the flawed relative to the median income measure, we will never “eliminate it” unless we wish to have an economy such as those of the old eastern bloc where doctors could only be paid so much more than parking wardens.

What we can do is use the more sophisticated measures of deprivation, such as the living standards survey and set out to reduce certain indicators within it (such as the proportion of families who say they miss certain meals because they can’t afford it).

‘Child poverty’  is a misleading term. It implies that the only people affected are the children.  But every child living in poverty is part of a household that is also living in poverty.  Whether that’s the result of generations of welfare dependency or a lack of jobs is not the issue.  The issue is how to break the cycle and get these kids into a situation where we can be confident they have a better future – by giving them a better present.

Breaking the cycle is the key. The problem is that it is a problem often that takes a generation or more to fix, as income is merely part of the problem. Education, child abuse, parenting skills are all part of a very challenging mix.

Comments (64)

Login to comment or vote