MercatorNet 18 September 2014
New Zealanders elect a new government on Saturday after a campaign in which several parties and advocacy groups have vied with each other to push child poverty to the top of the political agenda. That this should be the case might surprise the rest of the world.
Ours is a small, prosperous country of 4.5 million people, a welfare state (albeit one made over to some extent by market forces) and an agricultural producer which sells food to the world. Yet enough children arrive at school without breakfast or lunch to warrant food programmes in schools serving the poorest areas. According to a benchmark 2012 report, many children come from homes that are cold, poorly furnished and often crowded, they lack raincoats and sturdy shoes for wet weather and largely miss out on fresh fruit and vegetables, which grow here the year round.
At last count around 280,000 children lived in households below a poverty line of 60 percent of median income adjusted for family size (an unofficial measure since we have no official one). That’s one in four children under the age of 18, with a higher rate for those under 11.
Compared with those in average and higher income homes, these children are three times as likely to get sick, and 5.6 times as likely to be hospitalised for injuries from assault, neglect or maltreatment. They are less likely to leave school with the minimum qualification for skilled employment, and are therefore more likely to remain poor and perpetuate the poverty cycle.
But we are not alone. Nor are we the worst among the rich countries for neglecting the most vulnerable members of society. Unicef’s Innocenti Report Card 2012: Measuring child poverty, gives New Zealand a mid-ranking child poverty rate along with Australia and the UK (all between 11 and 12 percent) and leaves the US at the bottom (23 percent), better only than Romania. These rates reflect 2009-2010 data, a 50 percent income poverty line, and a child deprivation index which includes items such as outdoor leisure equipment and an internet connection.
Keeping poverty at bay comes at a cost, of course. The rates for the UK, New Zealand and Australia, middling as they are, reflect some of the highest social spending in the world: about 3.6 percent of GDP for the UK, and 3.1 percent for New Zealand and 2.8 for Australia – compared with around 1.3 percent for the US.
There is much that is debatable about poverty measures, starting with the fact that in rich countries, at least, the poverty line is relative and a moving target. But, lines and statistics aside, if increasing numbers of children are turning up at school hungry and ill-clothed, and at hospital emergency departments with infectious diseases or signs of abuse, there is clearly a problem to address.
The question is: What sort of problem? Inequality – the increasing gap between the rich and the poor? Global capitalism? Miserly right-wing governments? Irresponsible parents producing children they can’t support (a favourite gripe of newspaper correspondents)? Welfare dependency and loss of the work ethic?
What about the most fundamental thing that the majority of those children lack – a stable, married mum and dad? In 2012 48 percent of births in New Zealand were to unmarried mothers, and it is no secret that the majority of the poorest children are being raised by single parents. This is one of the top risk factors for child poverty in all countries, although it seldom receives more than a mention in advocacy literature or political debates. Social science, however, increasingly confirms that the decline of marriage is a key, if not the key, to child poverty and inequality.