By Kirsteen McLay-Knopp
Should there be a “Ministry of Children’s Affairs” here in Aotearoa, New Zealand? After all, we have a Children’s Commissioner and some would argue that a Ministry of Children’s Affairs would be a double up, as well as creating more bureaucracy and money from tax payers pockets. I spoke with Dunedin North Labour Member of Parliament Dr. David Clark, (spokesperson on revenue and small business, associate spokesperson on finance and health and himself father of two young children) to hear his views on this issue.
Q: How would a Children’s Ministry benefit the children of Aotearoa? How would this differ from the role of the Children’s Commissioner?
Dr. Clark: A Ministry for Children’s Affairs would bring responsibilty for the well-being of children to the cabinet table– currently there is none. If there was a ministry, every decision effecting children would have to be sheeted back to government decision making. Here in New Zealand problems such as inequalities [between rich and poor], domestic violence (witnessed by children or directed at children), are at unacceptable levels. Currently accountability for these problems in our government is not as direct as it could be. If there was a Ministry for Children’s Affairs, all policies would be looked at through the lens of outcomes for children. The Children’s Commissioner doesn’t have the same status: the Children’s Commission can say what they like, but the government often chooses not to listen. There is no minister directly accountable for the well-being of children in Aotearoa/New Zealand, so currently these issues are “everyone’s problem and no one’s problem”– with the result that little gets done. Around 20% of children here are now classified as “living in poverty”, one in five– that’s not acceptable. This issue needs to be made more important.
Q: Do other countries, for example, Scandinavian countries, which are often touted as an example to look up to in many areas, including child welfare, have such ministries or government departments? How do they approach these things and how well do they work?
Dr. Clark: Some countries, such as Ghana, have ministries of “Women’s and Children’s Affairs”– although I don’t think those two should necessarily be lumped in together. Southern Ireland has a “Ministry of Children and Youth Affairs”.
Scandinavian countries have amongst the best child welfare statistics in the world. In Finland, for example, where educational results are high, all teachers are required to have a Masters Degree– this is expected to be extended to include teachers of Early Childhood Education. It is harder to get into teacher training there than it is to study medicine or law. Attitudes like this lead to better outcomes for children. Higher equality contributes to better educational outcomes, which in turn leads to greater social mobility, ultimately reducing the gap between rich and poor.
Q: What do you think are the major resaons for the growing “gap” which now exists in Aotearoa/ NZ between “rich and poor”, as well as our negative statistics compared with other countries in the area of child welfare? Is this the first time in NZ history such a “gap” has existed? How is this best addressed?
Dr. Clark: I’m not an historian, but I know that inequalities were higher in the early years after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, as well as immediately after the Second World War.
Government policies during the 1980s and 1990s have contributed to the growth of the gap between rich and poor. In part, these policies began as a response to difficult financial circumstances of the country, but in my view, those economic reforms went too far and too fast. We are still suffering the consequences of these today.
Recently media focus on “school deciles” is reflecting wider concerns. With higher inequalities, some parents are “choosing” which schools they wish their children to attend based on decile ratings. With this comes the very real risk of increasing “separation” of rich and poor educationally, as a gap grows between perceived “rich” and “poor” schools. It’s a vicious circle: people fear a lack of resources in lower decile schools. That reality becomes more likely when only those families genuinely impoverished attend. Lower decile schools are hit harder by government cuts in programmes for special and high needs pupils, because they have fewer alternative sources of funding.
There’s a growing body of literature globally, presenting the case for more “equal” societies. One book that has popularised this research is The Spirit Level, published by British researchers Wilkinson and Pickett. They make the case that in more equal societies [here we are talking about the “richer” countries, or those which have signed the Convention on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the “OECD countries”] people (whether rich or poor) live longer and there are lower rates of “negative social indicators”, such as suicide, teen pregnancy and incarceration. Conversely, these “negative social indicators” are higher in “wealthy” countries where there is a big gap between rich and the poor. In the more equal countries everyone, even the wealthy, will be better off.
I believe there are 4 reasons in particular that inequality is bad for any society: 1) When children don’t have enough to eat, they don’t learn as well. People don’t achieve their full potential. They are also more likely to end up in prison, feeling (perhaps correctly) that society is against them. 2) In less equal societies incentives are set up differently. Those born in poverty who do manage to succeed go for high paying jobs, rather than for jobs which help society– like choosing, say, to become a hedge fund manager rather than a neurosurgeon. 3) Less equal societies tend to invest less in common infrastructure. The wealthy are more likely to be linked with the government. More equal societies invest in things which will benefit all, such as hospitals and schools. If you are very wealthy and your country is very poor, you may not care about the condition of the roads if you can afford to buy a SUV which can roll over the pot holes. You are less likely to be concerned about a lack of educational opportunities for the poor, when you can afford to send your own children to a top school. You are more likely, however, to be a victim of crime, to live in fear of crime and to spend money on “crime prevention”, such as alarm systems or security guards. The USA, a country which also fares poorly in child welfare indicators [but still ahead of New Zealand], have slowed investment in public infrastructure– something which they did do more when their “rich-poor” gap was smaller. 4) When everyone thinks “the system” is fair, everyone is prepared to put in an equal effort to create a better society. In a less equal society, everyone thinks that someone else is “ripping off the system”, so they are more inclined to try to do that themselves.
Dr. Clark: The overall picture is that childhood poverty creates negative lifetime outcomes. Health and earnings are, it is agreed across the political spectrum, lower among individuals who have experienced poverty as children. The big debate in government is how much money should be spent remedying this and, if we do give it priority, do we need to take funds away from another area, or somehow create more money specifically to tackle the issue of Child Poverty? Specific solutions were suggested in the 2011 Expert Advisory Report on Child Poverty in Aotearoa/ NZ but, because of issues such as the costs involved, it has not been possible to adopt every solution.
Q: The Dunedin Longitudinal Multidisciplinary Study of those born in 1972-1973 has been hailed globally as the leading human development study in existence. University of Otago academic Prof Richie Poulton, the Study Director, has been named in the top 1% most-cited researchers in science in the world. Both the Study Director and Associate Director, Terrie Moffitt, have been included in the recently released Thomson Reuters 2014 Highly Cited Researchers. What can the government, in New Zealand or in any country, learn from the findings of this study?
Dr. Clark: The findings are very similar to that of the Expert Advisory Report on Child Poverty. An investment in childhood is preferable to an “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff” approach. The Multidisciplinary Study is throwing up new data all the time, data which makes it clearer and clearer that the early years of childhood have a very strong determining effect on life outcomes. From a government perspective, it’s a no-brainer that investment in our children early in life, particularly in the first three years, pays big dividends for the future of our country.
See Link: http://dunedinstudy.otago.ac.nz/
(Many thanks to Dr. Clark for agreeing to be interviewed for this blog post).
See Related Posts on this Blog:
“The Other Children: Child Poverty in Aotearoa/NZ”