Let's give kids what they want - their rights

I asked my daughter what kind of sandwich she wanted. “Purple,” she replied. She was two then, but I have to admit that I’m not one of those people who romanticises the inherent wisdom of children. So I thought that when the Government consulted thousands of kids about what a “good life” is (as part of informing the Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy) the result would be Reddit-thread hilarity. After all, this is a cohort whose culinary seasonings include recently-sneezed with a bit of carpet fluff. Most of them can already do harder maths than me but some of the ones I know would happily fester for weeks under a pile of dirty socks and library books that somehow disappear the day they’re due, surviving on a vending-machine harvested diet. Turns out I was really wrong, and as my kids would say, “very judgy”. Because when New Zealand’s tamariki and rangatahi were consulted about wellbeing, they responded with the kind of clarity, insight and brutal honesty that my kids usually reserve for observations on my fashion sense. 

The idea behind the What Makes a Good Life? report was that the Government would consult with kids to shape the direction of the Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy, which was released last week (don’t worry, they asked adults, too). In the report, kids defined having a good life as having enough money, feeling safe, being healthy, and spending time with family. They talked about fairness, equality, safety, health, about “having the same opportunities as everyone else”. Their vision is one where children feel safe, loved, nurtured, valued. They want to spend time with their families (“even if they’re annoying the heck out of you”). Yes, a few of them wanted pets, but the important things for a good life, they said, were for people to have enough money, a good house, good relationships, safety, and freedom from bullying, violence or accidents. And they want the government to act urgently on child poverty.  At the top of the list of what rangatahi and tamariki think the Government needs to take urgent action on is: “supporting children and young people who experience poverty or disadvantage to have their needs met”. 

Consulting kids on policy direction isn’t just a cute exercise. It’s their right, and our responsibility under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC). In 2016 the UN Committee recommended that New Zealand embed children’s participation in policy, standardising “a high level of inclusion and participation”. The Children’s Convention Monitoring Group then developed 10 “ideas of action”, acknowledging our responsibility not just to listen to children’s voices, but also to “commit to acting on and sharing what is heard”. So now we have the Child and Youth Wellbeing strategy, with the voices of children asking the Government to take urgent action on poverty. Not only do we need to listen to their voices and act on what we learn, we also need to make sure that we are protecting their rights to “an adequate standard of living and access to adequate housing”. 

What’s the most beautiful part about this rights-based approach to acting on child poverty? It’s the happy news that the department responsible for administering the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its protocols is none other than the Ministry of Social Development.

One of the six wellbeing outcomes of the Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy is “children and young people have what they need”, and among the actions to support this outcome lurks a quietly revolutionary phrase: “overhaul the welfare system, taking into account the recommendations of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group”.

So far, there’s no timeline for this, or any commitment to all of those recommendations, and yet, there’s the word “overhaul”. Well, bring it on!  We need some real action, but right now, the welfare-specific actions in the Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy only includes plans to review the punshing regime of Work and Income debts and also to review that absurd policy where MSD pockets the child support of the children whose parents are on income support (cough, UNCRC administrators, cough). But we don’t need another review. The Welfare Expert Advisory Group has already done that. If we carry on like this we’ll end up with thousands of politically disillusioned, cynical kids on our hands - and let me tell you, nobody does anarchy like this lot. 

We need urgent action. Right now, kids carry the responsibility for the toxic stress of poverty; one child said: “My parents and family are stressed because of everything they have to pay for and things just get harder. I don't want to be extra stress”. Nobody wants a child to feel that way. We can all agree that children’s right to be free from poverty should be upheld, and for the State to be held accountable to remedy this disastrous blight on our society. Our tamariki need meaningful action. Now.