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Children, poverty and choice

In a recent television interview a man was asked what he would do with the money he saved from lower petrol prices.  He said he would be able to make sure his children had more milk and bread.

His story told the stark realities of choice for families living in poverty. It told us much more than many of the comments made about choice in recent weeks. Those comments have had two common themes. First they have argued that families in poverty make poor choices and if they made more ‘sensible‘ choices then their children would not be facing the significant disadvantages that come from living in poverty. Second, and often as part of the first argument, it has been claimed that families living below the poverty line have too many children and should limit their family size so that they can ensure that their children don’t live in poverty.  Both arguments are nonsense and fly in the face of what we know about child poverty in New Zealand

First, what are the facts about poverty and family size? The most recent report from the Ministry of Social Development work on inequality and poverty shows that more than half (55%) of the children living in poverty were in families with one or two children. Poverty is, then, a significant issue for smaller families – it is not an issue of having ‘too many children’.

But,  of course, family size is a much more complicated matter than the simple arguments noted above suggest. There is a vast difference between choosing, for example, which loaf of bread to buy at the supermarket or which route to take on holiday and deciding on whether or not to have another child. Decisions about family size are shaped by a range of personal, family, stage of career, historical, religious and cultural considerations, to name but some of the considerations. They are not matters which are and can be worked out on the calculator as the costs are added up!!

Moreover, a ‘choice’ that a couple might make at one point in their lives may be rather different a few  years later when, for example, unemployment, separation or divorce, an accident or serious illness or a major natural disaster (earthquake, flood) significantly alters circumstances. ‘Free choice’ requires that we know all the consequences of that choice, which is clearly impossible as we face a totally unknown future. None of us are totally in control of that future, despite our best efforts at planning ahead.

Finally, someone has to have children. Families with children are making a huge contribution by having children that our country will rely on in the years to come. Their children should be considered a precious gift to the country. Our falling birth rate (currently at about 2.05 births per woman) means we are likely to have a hugely expensive older population that will need plenty of workers to support their needs. We might not all be happy about contributing our taxes right now to those children, but nevertheless, as we get older, may find ourselves thankful that those families with five or six children, (immensely hard work to raise whatever their level of receipt of state assistance), were all well fed and educated as they become the nurses, doctors, business owners and workers of the generation that follows after us.

There is another fundamental consideration of choice, namely the choices we make as a society. The logical outcome of the argument about choice is that we don’t provide any financial support for families with children. This means then, for example, that we stop such programmes as Working for Families. This would significantly increase the poverty of families whose parents are in paid work – these families constitute 40% of the children currently in poverty and the percentage would significantly increase if that programme (despite its problems) was stopped.

There is a choice we can make as a society and community, a choice to ensure that no children live in poverty and all children have the best possible opportunity to realise their potential. While parents have major responsibility in relation to the care and upbringing of their children, we don’t expect that they will do this totally on their own. There are many ways in which as a community we accept that there is a shared responsibility. For example, we provide public education, access to hospital and general practice, access to libraries and public facilities such as parks and sports grounds free of charge, financial support through programmes such as Working for Families etcetera. There is, then, a choice we have made as a community.

We can choose too to ensure that all families have an adequate income. This requires better wages, improved benefits and a more comprehensive system of tax credits. We can choose that as a community and we can and should demand that our politicians make the choices that will ensure that this happens. Then families will have real choice – they will not have to decide whether to put petrol in the car so that they can go to work or to buy milk and bread for their children.