By Kirsteen McLay-Knopp
This recent cover of the New Zealand Listener (Sept 6-12 2014) caught my eye. Child poverty issues have been greatly discussed within the last few years here in Aotearoa/ New Zealand. Much child advocacy has been based around defining exactly what “poverty” here means and how children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are affected by their situations. Many New Zealanders are concerned by the growing “gap” between rich and poor—a greater gap (and a greater number of “poor families”) than in previous generations. People are also, particularly in light of New Zealand’s upcoming election, asking what can be done about the child poverty situation and which political parties are prepared to take practical action towards alleviating it.
Reading this article, it is interesting to learn more about New Zealand’s Children’s Commissioner, Dr. Russell Wills. I was impressed by the fact that he has kept his job as a paediatrician as well as being the Children’s Commissioner and is the first Children’s Commissioner to have held two positions at the same time. Wills is working “for children” and “with children”: many of his patients are children “living in poverty” with illnesses which are often regarded as being those of “third world countries”.
“…three quarters of kids in New Zealand have opportunities that kids of similar incomes in other countries don’t have. In some countries you have to pay to go to the beach.” –Dr. Russell Wills, NZ Children’s Commissioner.
Wills says his number one priority as Children’s Commissioner is the “other children” (the other quarter), “the ones living in cold, overcrowded homes and going to school without food or adequate clothing…” Wills says our kids under five are the ones who suffer the most. “Adults and older kids [in crowded conditions in sub-standard housing] get a cold, but the baby gets bronchitis or pneumonia and ends up in hospital.”
Poverty also places enormous stress on families and relationships and can lead to domestic violence including child abuse. When housing costs become unaffordable, a number of families may choose to share accommodation. Multiple personalities then come into in the mix. Sharing rent and ensuring that everyone is “paying their way” and “pulling their weight”, plus different parenting styles and dynamics among children who are biologically related and those in the household who are not, can exacerbate an already difficult situation. If you then throw in issues such as cold and damp housing, long term unemployment, drug and/or alcohol abuse and depression or other mental illnesses, things begin to look toxic, especially from the point of view of being conducive to the well-being of a child.
I like the practical way in which Wills and those who work with him, appear to be “breaking down” the problem areas and coming up with strategies for tackling them. “We need to know what investments make the biggest difference,” he says. “Early Childhood Education obviously makes a big difference: that’s important. ECE for kids in poorer areas is a must-have.”
Wills also highlights the economic costs of children growing up in poverty: “…requiring expensive medical treatment for poverty-related illnesses, falling into crime, failing to achieve educationally and ending up on welfare—all at a cost to the productive sector.” Included in his “Expert Advisory Panel on Child Poverty” were business people such as Phil O’Riley, chief executive of Business NZ.
The cover of this issue of the NZ Listener poses the question: “How far should the State go to end child poverty?” It has often been said that the mark of a good society is how far it provides for its most vulnerable citizens: the elderly, the poor, the disabled, the unwell and the young.
For those of us who are parents, advocating for the well-being of the “other children” is about positively affecting the society of tomorrow—in our own countries and around the world. It is about supporting other parents through difficult situations and giving a voice to children whose parents are unable to advocate for them. Empathy and being part of our national and global family are essential, but these go hand in hand with careful thought and practical solutions.
Wills says, “…this really matters, because it affects all of us.” He is also, however, optimistic. “The solutions are complex…, but they are within our hands.”
To read in full the New Zealand Listener article discussed here, buy a copy or subscribe! Also see:
In the same issue (Sept. 6-12 2014) as the article discussed here, there is an interesting look at James Cook High School in Manurewa, South Auckland:’ “Cool School”, How James Cook High is Achieving Against the Odds.’
Other NZ Listener issues featuring child-focused topics:
Other Resources relating specifically to Child Poverty in Aotearoa/ New Zealand:
Between 130,000 and 285,000 New Zealand children live in poverty, depending on the measure used. These disturbing figures are widely discussed, yet often poorly understood. If New Zealand does not have ‘third world poverty’, what are these children actually experiencing? Is the real problem not poverty but simply poor parenting? How does New Zealand compare globally and what measures of poverty and hardship are most relevant here? What are the consequences of this poverty for children, their families and society? Can we afford to reduce child poverty and, if we can, how?
Jonathan Boston and Simon Chapple look hard at these questions, drawing on available national and international evidence and speaking to an audience across the political spectrum. Their analysis highlights the strong and urgent case for addressing child poverty in New Zealand. Crucially, the book goes beyond illustrating the scale of this challenge, and why it must be addressed, to identifying real options for reducing child poverty. A range of practical and achievable policies is presented, alongside candid discussion of their strengths and limitations. These proposals for improving the lives of disadvantaged children deserve wide public debate and make this a vitally important book for all New Zealanders.
(Book published June 2014)
“Jonathan Boston and Simon Chapple have written the definitive book on child poverty in New Zealand.”
Dr Russell Wills, Children’s Commissioner
Also Child Poverty in New Zealand the blog (accompanying the book).