Economics should be about people. But since the 1970s an ideology that became known as neoliberalism placed markets rather than human welfare at the heart of economics and economic and social policy. The primary social outcome, for New Zealand and elsewhere, has been the creation of inequality at levels not seen since before the Second World War. And despite our best efforts, we are seeing an increasing rate of child neglect and abuse. If inequality is a leading contributor to child abuse, are we passive recipients of our appallingly high child maltreatment rates, or are we creating them?
New Zealand is ranked third highest amongst rich nations for its intentional child maltreatment death rates1. There has been no consistent decrease in these rates since they doubled in the 1980s2. Although child abuse is the result of a range of interacting factors, there is an ever-expanding body of evidence showing poverty and inequality significantly increase the risk of child maltreatment and neglect. The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (2001)3 findings suggest that the greater a family’s material deprivation, the greater the risk of child maltreatment. A 2014 study found a strong association between higher income inequality among United States counties and higher levels of child abuse and neglect in those counties4. The current government sees child abuse and neglect as a familial issue and thus attempts to address it through social services and risk management policies. The Children’s Action plan does not recognise the impact of poverty at all. Its main focus is on reporting child abuse early5.
Most people would agree that reducing child abuse and neglect is a must, but many hear alarm bells when they hear the suggestion that this means we must reduce inequality. So many New Zealanders have bought into the idea that economics is about GDP growth – making the pie bigger rather than redistributing it. If recent political history is anything to go by we have shown that as a population we are willing to allow the government to reduce spending wherever it feels necessary. Ganesh Nana6 urges us to remember that this is a twisted perspective.
“Economics was supposed to be about people, the resources they possessed, the behaviour governing their decisions and actions about using those resources, and how such decisions might lead to better (or worse) outcomes” (2013, p. 56).
New Zealand, economic growth is not an end in itself, but a means of creating the society we want to live in. In other words, our economic goals should serve our holistic values of well-being and community (Nana, 2013).
Reducing child poverty and inequality must be an integral part of any government action to reduce child maltreatment7. In practical terms this means increasing incomes and benefits and reducing the cost of housing. For example, if housing costs were reduced to the international standard of 30% of income, child poverty in New Zealand would decrease by 70%8.
For those that fear that such policies are unaffordable, it is important to note that inequality is actually highly inefficient. It limits people (resources) from achieving their full potential and forces the government to spend billions on social services and health care. A conservative estimate calculates the cost of lost opportunity alone to be $10 billion p.a. (Nana, 2013). Infometrics found that child abuse and neglect costs Aotearoa $2 billion per year due to the resulting immediate and long-term health costs, child welfare services, crime and lost productivity9. But more importantly child abuse and neglect destroys people’s well-being and costs lives. For those that make it to their adult years they are more likely to experience mental illness, difficulty maintaining relationships, lower qualifications, high blood pressure, and heart disease 10. The child maltreatment death rates do not record the number of children who suicide in their adult years.
Inequality is the result of the choice we have made to prioritise our (narrowly defined) economic prosperity over our social cohesion and wellbeing. Therefore child abuse is a societal choice resulting from our prioritisation of GDP growth and lower taxes over the wellbeing of the child next door. If we are serious about reducing our appalling child abuse statistics we must urge the government to reduce inequality. Inequality and child abuse cost us billions of dollars each year. If you think we cannot afford initiatives to reduce inequality, the truth is, we can’t afford not to.
So what will be the focus of your vote this year? The economy, or the kid next door?
I’m using mine to be a voice for our most vulnerable.
- UNICEF. (2003). A League Table of Child Maltreatment Deaths in Rich Nations. Florence: Innocenti Research Centre, Innocenti Report Card (No. 5). Retrieved at http://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/353/#pdf
- Craig, E., & et al. (2011). The Children’s Social Health Monitor 2011 Update. Dunedin: New Zealand Child and Youth Epidemiology Service. Gilbert, R., Fluke, J., O’Donnell, M., Gonzalez-Izquierdo, A., Brownell, M., Gulliver, P., et al. (2012). Child Maltreatment: Variation in Trends and Policies in Six Developed Countries. The Lancet, 2012(379), 758-772.
- Nana, G. (2013).The cost of inequality. In M. Rashbrooke (Ed.)., Inequality: A New Zealand Crisis (pp. 55-69). Wellington: Bridget Williams Books.
- Wynd, D. (2013). Child abuse: what role does poverty play? Auckland: Child Poverty Action Group. Retrievable at http://www.cpag.org.nz/assets/Publications/130610%20CPAG%20Child%20Abuse%20Report%201%20June%202013.pdf. Book. http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/violence/world_report/en/
- Dale, M. C., O’Brien, M., & St John, S. (2011). Left further behind: how policies fail the poorest children in New Zealand [ISBN 0-9582263-9-3]. Auckland, New Zealand.
- Child information gateway. (2013). Long term consequences of child abuse and neglect. Washington, DC: United States. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau. Retrieved at: https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/long_term_consequences.cfm