I wake up each morning feeling incredibly lucky to live in New Zealand.
Our country is a true example of democracy. We have free and fair elections. Political division is almost non-existent compared to the United States. There’s comparatively little corruption, and any instances can be reported on without fear by our media. Religion can be practised freely, and all citizens are afforded basic human rights.
Then there are freedoms we enjoy that are often taken for granted. There are – for now – no laws seriously restricting freedom of speech. Our children can play in public safely. Healthcare and education are (mostly) free. We can wear whatever we want. Access to the internet is not restricted.
The list goes on.
But festering underneath all of these benefits is the reality that too many children are living in poverty. It makes me angry.
I sit on the right of the political compass. It would be easy to rattle off a number of reasons why, but one of the most fundamental is the notion of personal responsibility. I believe that we should be responsible for our own destiny and not rely on the state.
Nevertheless, there will always be a need for a welfare state because life is not perfect and sometimes things happen that are simply out of our control. It is entirely reasonable to aspire for personal responsibility while acknowledging that compassion will always be required – and that sometimes this has to take the form of government intervention.
I accept that not everyone reading this will agree with me on that.
Where I hope we can find common ground is that children who are living in material deprivation are not responsible for their situation at all.
I recognize there are people who will argue that it is the parents who need to take responsibility. In an ideal world, they would. Unfortunately, this just isn’t always the case, and we shouldn’t punish children for circumstances they were born in to.
So, state intervention is sometimes necessary. Take free lunches in schools. If life were perfect, parents wouldn’t send their kids to school hungry or without food. The reality, however, is that it is happening. And we shouldn’t just turn a blind eye to it because it would go against our ideological belief about how the world should be.
If we aspire to live in a society where reliance on the state is all but non-existent, we have to break the cycle of poverty. If parents are unable or unwilling to do this, it cannot be left up to the children to do it themselves. I hope that any compassionate person should be able to recognize this – including compassionate conservatives.
I can’t say that I’ve always felt this strongly about child poverty. For over a decade, I worked with the most privileged and fortunate of kids and I always thought I was doing my bit for society by ensuring I was helping raise well-rounded, strong, and smart children.
In the last year or so, however, I was ”mugged by reality” as it became clear to me that these are not the children who need extra time or resources spent on them. And then I started getting angry, because we have a government that has the audacity to say it is kind and compassionate but isn’t acting in a way that I would call even close to transformative when it comes to child poverty.
The government is quite happy to throw $55m at the media, rush constitutional law changes through urgency, debate supplements, and snipe at the opposition. But child poverty? All we hear is some statistics on supposed measures improving, while conveniently forgetting to mention that the very one that matters – material deprivation – is not.
The government’s apologists will dutifully trot out this or that program being trialed or how the government has made this small sum available to this set of people. It’s all things happening at the edges. Nothing gets to the heart of the matter.
I don’t know how someone, whose entire reason for being in politics is to rid the country of child poverty, can live with themselves after 12 years as an MP (over three of which have been in the top job) when life for many kiwi children is only getting worse.
What is the answer? I don’t know. What I do know, however, is this shouldn’t be a partisan monopoly for the left. It is nothing short of reprehensible that New Zealand still has so many children living in poverty, and our politicians and leaders should be ashamed.
If Labour isn’t going to act boldly on this, it’s time that National came up with a plan. This is the stuff that matters, and it’s what is going to make a real difference to society in New Zealand.
Monique Poirier has a Masters degree in Political Studies, and is a former small business owner and Parliamentary staffer. She is the Campaigns Manager for the Auckland Ratepayers’ Alliance.