Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere
Social Inequality Requires a Long-term Focus
Child poverty is not a new or recent development in New Zealand. The controversy surrounding Ans Westra’s 1964 series of photographs ‘Washday at the Pa’ shows that it is an endemic problem, but perhaps one that was hitherto swept under the carpet. What has changed is the visibility of child poverty: it is difficult to ignore the issue when over 40,000 children have breakfast at school because they will not be getting it at home.
With visibility ought to come action. Yet the most distressing aspect of the pervasiveness of child poverty in New Zealand is the pervasiveness of inaction to address it.
New Zealand media perennially takes up the issue, hectoring the public about “our hidden shame”. The public obliges, looking at its collective feet and feeling collective guilt. Parliament seizes upon issue, its members from across the spectrum singing from the same sheet: “won’t somebody please think of the children?”
That is usually the end of the story. Simple acknowledgement of the problem is usually sufficient to both discharge Parliament’s obligations and assuage society’s guilt. The issue falls off the radar. The new issue is usually something like a surge in violent crime. The new collective emotion is unbridled outrage. The new response from Parliament is action against those societal misfits. Yet no one seems to show discomfort in feeling sorry for children in poverty yesterday and demanding that those same children are locked up tomorrow.
Luckily for us, there are those who are not content to simply acknowledge the problem and then move on. Organisations like the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), the United Nations and the Children’s Commissioner actually heed Parliament’s call to think of the children. They think about the children a great deal, and they produce comprehensive reports full of their scientifically based and expert-backed thoughts. Their reports do useful things like define poverty (households living on less 60 per cent of the median household wage), usefully showing that 25 percent of New Zealand children are living in poverty.
Most usefully of all, they offer solutions to the problem of child poverty. Those solutions fall into three main areas:
· Increasing incomes and lowering the cost of living: policies to increase the wages of the lowest paid (or supplement those wages with government assistance, including paid-parental leave), and decrease the costs of housing, food and utilities;
· Education: policies of early intervention in those children at risk to ensure basic literacy and numeracy and to prevent disillusionment with school; and
· Health: policies to ensure access to primary healthcare and to prevent the causes of poor heath (overcrowding, poor nutrition) and immunisation.
The striking features of these solutions are that they are long-term and preventative. There is an acknowledgement that the problems are not that little Johnny is hungry or that Johnny’s father routinely and severely hits him; that the solutions are not food stamps or throwing Johnny’s father in prison. These are simply symptoms of the core problem: social inequality. And the solution to social inequality requires a long-term focus that breaks the cycle of child poverty begetting simply more child poverty.
That organisations have researched and identified the problems and causes of child poverty and have proffered solutions to those problems, which makes the emptiness in ‘calls for action’ by those who have a responsibility to act all the more galling. Case in point: the Government’s Green Paper for Vulnerable Children released in July. The purpose of the Green Paper is to stimulate discussion about the worrying child poverty and child abuse statistics in New Zealand. Talking tough, the Minister for Social Development states in her foreword:
Politicians all agree something must be done. But these are issues that deserve more than a quick news sound-bite and must be seen beyond three-year political terms. We must tackle complex, controversial issues and make decisions that will affect generations.
Yet the 44-page document is almost devoid of content. Its analysis of child poverty as a “contributing” factor to vulnerability is confined to two paragraphs (page 11) and opaquely states that the Government priority is “showing leadership” but also “sharing responsibility [with whanau and communities]” (page 15). Later, it issues an ominous warning:
There may not be a need for more money to be spent on vulnerable children, but rather a willingness to make better use of the resourcing we already have. (Page 18)
So, “something must be done”, but not if it involves new spending. It is a depressing paper because, although laudable in the abstract, consistently asking the public “what do you think?” is a fairly weak response to the glaringly obvious problem of social inequality manifesting itself as child poverty. We could take some solace in this response if concrete and effective action following the process of consultation was certain, but it is not. Indeed, in response to the (258-page) CPAG report, the Minister stated to the House on 15 September:
I would not implement that report any more readily than I would Labour’s so-called policies, but, then again, they are the same thing.
The CPAG’s policy suggestions were not radical. They included free healthcare to children under six, the development of a national housing plan, and “adequate” funding for low decile schools. This is hardly the nadir of socialist redistributive politics, and was quite acceptable to conservative governments of the past in this country. If the Government is not committed to providing these sorts of solutions, (if it is committed to providing any solutions at all), then we can look forward to the status quo of piecemeal policies dealing with the symptoms and not the cause of child poverty.
The cycle of poverty is endemic in New Zealand, and it is depriving children of the ability to become functioning and contributing members of society. We know what causes it and how to solve it, and yet those who have the ability to implement those solutions shy away from doing so, instead asking people to think and talk about the issue a little further. As long as this – and not action – remains the modus operandi of decision-makers then child poverty will persist, because talk and thought does not make for a nutritious breakfast.
Marcelo is a former Wellington-based Lawyer and now studying as a graduate student at the University of Toronto.