Child-poverty campaigners say the move to a free-market economy has hurt the health of New Zealand's children

Phillip Matthews, reporter at the Christchurch Press published this fantastic article in early March.  While it is not available from the Christchurch Press website, Phillip has kindly allowed CPAG to published it on our website. 

To download the full article click here 

There is an apocryphal story about a New Zealand prime minister who was asked if New Zealand had any unemployed people. Yes, he replied, and he knew their names.  

In the story, the prime minister is usually Keith Holyoake, which would make it the 1950s or 1960s. Documentary-maker Bryan Bruce grew up in Christchurch in the 1950s and cites the Holyoake anecdote to give the flavour of the times. There was no observable poverty, which doesn't mean poverty didn't exist - but the needs of the poor could be easily met by charities and churches.

School children were still getting a bottle of milk every day, courtesy of the state. That practice ended in 1967. A couple of years ago, Bruce began thinking about all that again, and mapped out a documentary idea, titled The Price of Milk. The idea was that, when he was a kid, milk was three pence a bottle and Coca-Cola was a shilling; now, Coca-Cola is half the price of milk. So, what changed and why?

Bruce soon realised he was learning about changes in the global economy, the dropping of tariffs and the growing gap between rich and poor since the 1984 free-market reforms. He learned that, in New Zealand, "all of the diseases of poverty have gone up, particularly since the 1991 Mother of All Budgets".

Bruce talked to health professionals at the coalface and at Russell School in Porirua, near his home in Wellington. He "became appalled at what the move to the free-market economy had done to our children's health". He heard about rheumatic fever, meningococcal disease and tuberculosis. He heard about bronchiectasis and osteomyelitis. He heard about easily preventable diseases getting to the hospitalisation stage because parents either couldn't or wouldn't take children to GPs.

He broadcast some alarming statistics in the documentary, eventually titled Inside Child Poverty. For example: "More than 20,000 children, mostly from low- income families, were admitted to hospital [in 2010] for respiratory illnesses and serious skin infection caused by poor housing and overcrowding."

The documentary screened last November but that isn't where the story ends for Bruce. He is selling DVDs of the documentary from a website, with proceeds going to the decile-one Russell School, and this weekend he will help launch a Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) campaign.
"We need to keep reminding people that we don't stack up here, " he says. "This isn't a great place to bring up kids anymore."

Sometimes it takes television's wide reach to tell us things we should already know. About 500,000 New Zealanders have seen Inside Child Poverty and "the overwhelming majority" whom Bruce heard from were shocked and thought, we need to talk about this more and find "positive ways to solve the problem".
But should they have been shocked? Report has followed report. The titles say it all: the Salvation Army called its latest report "The Growing Divide"; CPAG opted for "Left Further Behind". Both spoke directly of the widening gap between the haves and have- nots, and the effect on the most vulnerable.

First, how is poverty defined? In New Zealand, we talk of relative poverty. There is no official poverty measure, but the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) opts for poverty lines of 50 per cent and 60 per cent of median household income. This is the measure widely used in EU and OECD countries.

Depending on how it is measured, the child poverty rate in New Zealand in 2010 was between 16 per cent and 25 per cent, or between 170,000 and 270,000 children. The rate was several percentage points higher in the 1990s and early 2000s, and began falling from around 2004, as unemployment fell and Working for Families was introduced. Then it plateaued about 2007.

The MSD research says that, since the 1991 benefit cuts, poverty rates for children in beneficiary families have been constant at 70 to 80 per cent. There is also the working poor: around two-in-five poor children are in households where at least one adult is in full-time work, or is self-employed.

Unsurprisingly, children in one-parent households are much more likely to live in poverty than children in two- parent households, although rising unemployment has meant that more two-parent households became poor in 2009 and 2010.

As the Salvation Army's report noted, "there is no such thing as the typical poor New Zealand child". One-in-six Pakeha kids will live in poverty, compared to one-in- four Pacific kids and one-in- three Maori kids.

The Salvation Army report, released last month , drew a connection between high rates of child poverty and increases in reported violence and neglect of children. It is just one voice in a growing chorus. Last February, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child raised concerns about access to early childhood education, health services and quality housing for New Zealand children, especially Maori.

In August, Every Child Counts, a coalition of child advocacy organisations, ranked New Zealand 28th out of 30 OECD countries for child outcomes. Researchers looked at education, deprivation, suicide and infant mortality rates. Only Mexico and Turkey were below us.

The Children's Social Health Monitor raised similar concerns about links between poverty and poor health outcomes, particularly for Maori and Pacific children. When its report was released in August, Otago University epidemiologist Elizabeth Craig talked of how poverty increased the child mortality rate, with sudden unexpected death in infancy being 7.4 times more likely for babies in the most deprived parts of New Zealand.

The CPAG's "Left Further Behind" appeared in September. It offered seven recommendations: monitor indicators of child poverty with an aim to eradicate it entirely by 2020; create a senior Cabinet position, such as a Minister for Children; pay the Working for Families in-work tax credit to beneficiaries as well as workers; ensure early childhood education is accessible and affordable, and that training allowances support sole parents' education; provide free access to health care for children, 24 hours a day, seven days a week; develop a national housing plan, and ensure housing is affordable and appropriate; and provide adequate funding for low- decile schools.

In Parliament the week the report was released, Labour MP Annette King asked Social Development Minister Paula Bennett which of the CPAG recommendations she would be implementing.

None, basically. Bennett dismissed the report as political: "I would no more implement that report than Labour's so-called policies, but then again, that's the same thing . . . I struggle to agree with anything that was in the CPAG report. It was so political, it should carry a Labour Party authorisation with it."

How about the notion of creating a Minister for Children? Bennett dismissed that as "a knee-jerk response".

So much for any cross- party consensus.

In the run-up to the election, it was the Green Party that made the most of child poverty policies. Lifting 100,000 New Zealand children out of poverty by 2014 was one of its manifesto lines and it promoted four solutions, some of which overlap with CPAG: make Working for Families tax credits available to beneficiaries, granting an extra $60 per week; provide better study support for sole parents and beneficiaries; raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour; and make sure rental properties are warm and healthy (another alarming statistic: 375,000 kids are in cold, damp homes).

The Green Party costed its solutions at $360 million per year. Some commentators suggested adding CPAG's meals-in-schools programme, at another $40m. For the not too extravagant sum of $400m, we would have been close to a solution that even Sweden would recognise as effective.

Sweden is usually held up as the example of how to do things properly: No 2 in the OECD to our No 29. Bruce had to investigate.

"I decided to go to Sweden on my own money, " he says. "I used my air points because I didn't have that in the budget. As I researched the topic, I realised that the Scandinavians had made different decisions to us. They had ring-fenced their children and elderly when they moved to a liberal economic policy. Yes, they do have higher taxation but they have a different morality about all this."

In the Sweden section of his documentary, Bruce saw that Swedish schools provide healthy lunches to students free of charge and have medical facilities attached to schools to catch childhood illnesses early. When Bruce showed his Porirua footage to Swedish specialists, they were horrified: here were diseases Sweden had not seen in decades.

Preventive health care turns out to be not just more ethical, but cheaper. Doctors in Sweden and New Zealand told Bruce this, and it was also one of the conclusions reached by the Every Child Counts report.

Every Child Counts chairman Murray Edridge said the relatively low public investment in early childhood, at $3 billion or 1.5 per cent of GDP, led to a heavier economic burden down the track, of at least 3 per cent of GDP.

But sometimes the stark imagery of television can say it more effectively. Bryan Bruce opened his documentary with the following line: "Last year, 150 babies died in this country who probably would have been alive if they were born in Sweden, Japan or even the Czech Republic." As he said it, he stood amidst a mass of empty pushchairs.

"What I tried to say in the documentary is that I haven't got a magic answer to this, " he says."The Government sure as hell hasn't got a magic answer to this. We should all sit down and come up with a long-term plan for our children in the same way that we came up with a long-term plan for the over-65s and superannuation.

"We need to be smart and look at what's working in other countries and apply it to ourselves."

This might be a little- known fact, but tomorrow is National Children's Day. CPAG is using it as a platform to launch a campaign.

Essentially, CPAG sees the Working for Families in-work tax credit as discriminatory in that it goes only to working families and not beneficiary families. It smacks of the deserving poor and the undeserving poor.

Seeing this as a human rights issue, CPAG took its case to the High Court in Wellington last year. The court found that the in-work tax credit does discriminate but is not unlawful as there is a legitimate objective to encourage beneficiaries into work.

Unsatisfied, CPAG is launching a fundraising drive - the goal is $50,000 - to take the case to the Supreme Court. "All of our work, all of our well-reasoned research, all of our output, to explain why these policies are so bad, has come to nothing and so as a last resort we have gone down the court route, and are continuing to do that, " CPAG economic spokesperson Susan St John says.

As New Zealand signed up to the UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child, "it has legal obligations and it simply isn't fulfilling those".

Over the years, St John says she has been struck by the gulf between New Zealanders' concern about child poverty as a general issue and the apparent unwillingness to do anything meaningful about it.

"Why is that when everyone is seemingly so concerned about child poverty yet nothing seems to happen?" she asks. "One of the reasons I suggest is that various governments have made family income support so complicated, and they've ended up renaming things, and people do not understand what has actually happened. For example, the in-work tax credit sounds as if it's got nothing to do with children; it sounds like it's got everything to do with rewarding work." In fact, it is not a work incentive. It goes to the caregiver of the child of a worker.

"We've got a strongly pro- work focus in this country, " St John continues. "The mantra is that work is the way out of poverty, that people on benefits are bludgers."

Such rhetoric diverts us from the fact that the poorest are denied at least $3000 in after-tax money for their children on their annual basis, she says.

She was encouraged that Labour supported CPAG's calls to extend in-work tax credits, as an admission that Labour got that bit of Working with Families wrong. Could it sell it to the electorate, though?

St John believes that last year Labour "perhaps failed to adequately explain to their middle and low-income working base that they are only one step away from losing their jobs in a very uncertain economic climate, and suddenly the caregiver will have $60 less to feed the children. The working-class group has an interest in making sure that the safety net doesn't become so frayed."

But for many, especially the middle classes in cities, child poverty is an abstract problem at best.

"We've got a two-speed economy, " St John says. "It's very much that one side doesn't know how the other side lives except that the papers are full of how the affluent live. Those living in deprived circumstances are quite aware of how cushy it is at the top of the heap, and that's driving a social polarisation, which is extremely unhealthy."

But the aim of the Supreme Court action is not just to generate local publicity but to "have New Zealand shamed a little bit internationally". Speaking of international comparisons, St John finds it "extremely frustrating" that all the talk of catching up with Australia is around income levels, rather than benefits. There, child policies tend to be more generous and inclusive.

"In Australia, the policies for paid parental leave are so much more inclusive. Every baby born in Australia is entitled to a baby bonus, so that if you miss out on paid parental leave, you get a baby bonus of $5000 a year. But New Zealand's focus has been to say that even very young children must be pushed out into daycare while their parents go off scrounging for work, whereas other countries are saying we've got to support those very young children."

On the same day that St John says this, Paula Bennett and Prime Minister John Key were gearing up for the announcement of welfare reform that would force solo mothers on benefits into work sooner rather than later - roughly the opposite of the model that St John would like to see. What hope is there for the kind of apolitical, cross- party consensus that Bryan Bruce talks about?

There are some clues in comments made in relation to the Government's Green Paper for Vulnerable Children, which was launched last July. It is a public discussion document and submissions closed this week. A green paper becomes a white paper; a white paper might produce legislation some day.

However, as Green Party MP Holly Walker has noted, there seems to be a widespread misconception that the green paper will tackle child poverty. In fact, it is more concerned with child abuse and neglect, and issues such as information sharing between agencies.

Walker commented this week that "there's nothing in the green paper about addressing family incomes, or material hardship, or child poverty, or inequality, even though we know these things are major contributors to the high rates of child abuse and neglect that the paper seeks to address. This is a major shortcoming."

Still, just because child poverty is not in the terms of the paper, that does not mean it cannot be in the submissions. In Parliament last month , Walker asked, if a large number of submissions call for the Government to raise incomes, would it include such strategies in the white paper?
National MP Judith Collins, in answering questions on Bennett's behalf, said: "One of the best ways to raise people's income is to get them into work, and I know that [Bennett] is particularly concerned to get more people into work."

As for poverty and outcomes, Collins added that Bennett is "very concerned" by the implication that "only rich people are good parents".

Perhaps you should expect such sophistry in Parliament. A week later, National MP Chester Burrows, responding to questions from Labour's Jacinda Ardern, was a little more reasonable. He guaranteed that all submissions would be considered, including those on child poverty.

Bryan Bruce also got to see politics up close when the uncomfortable details of his child poverty documentary were marginalised by a political story about its funding and screening.

In January, it was reported that NZ on Air board member Stephen McElrea raised concerns about the publicly funded documentary screening so close to the 2011 election. McElrea is also John Key's electorate chairman and National's northern region deputy chairman.

At a board level, the funding body looked at whether it could forbid broadcasters from scheduling political documentaries close to an election. NZ on Air chief executive Jane Wrightson wrote to TV3 to express its disappointment about the scheduling of the documentary.
In retrospect, this has made Bryan Bruce's documentary seem more party-political than it was.

"I was critical of Labour in the programme, " Bruce says. "Roger Douglas has a lot to be responsible for. I wasn't holding a candle for the Labour Party."

One problem was that Labour bought commercial time for its election ads during the programme; of course, Bruce had no control over this.

"I personally take the view that the electorate ought to be informed about issues. It seems to me that we need to grow up a bit about television: people still have this lingering thought that television has the enormous power that it had when it first came into the country and was one channel. New Zealanders chose to watch that programme. They weren't brainwashed."

He adds that he didn't exactly ambush the Government. On the weekend before it screened, he allowed all the political parties to watch the documentary in advance on YouTube links, to prepare them for any discussion that would follow.

Some parties chose to watch it. Some - including National - did not. No-one got back to him and complained, he says.

In the end, the Electoral Commission found nothing wrong with the documentary or its screening. Nor did it infringe the Broadcasting Act.

Bruce suspects that part of the problem for some was that a real issue was suddenly lobbed into an election campaign that had been dominated by such trivialities as the teacup saga.
"But what the hell should we be talking about in the lead-up to an election, if not our children?" he asks.

"Everybody thinks it's a reasonable thing to sit down and talk about this. National apparently doesn't think that. Why not? I don't think they're bad people. I don't think anybody in government gets up in the morning and thinks, how can we make the lives of New Zealand children miserable today?

"It's about how we put morality into capitalism. How do we have social responsibility for our children if you've got a system that says you're free to make as much money as you like, and no, you don't have to pay taxes on land and no, you don't have to pay capital gains tax and you don't have to pay the amount of tax that would be required to keep the people who cannot earn an income - our children - safe?

"I suspect the threat for people like John Key is that we might have to rethink the way our economy is run and what it means to have an economy - what it means to have a fair market rather than a free market."

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