Our Children, Our Choice Policy Series 2014
The 2014 publications recommend changes to current policy around children’s health; early childhood education and care; provision of compulsory education; housing; and family incomes. Each policy paper is authored by experts in their field, and contains links to other resources including audio-visual material.
Introduction to the Series
The first part of the series focuses on the health of the poorest children in Aotearoa New Zealand. It closes with recommendations for better policies for our children.
In 2014, it is of grave concern that child poverty is now more entrenched and difficult to address than when Child Poverty Action Group published Left Further Behind, 2011.[i]The need for action is even more pressing. The full benefits of the ‘Working for Families’ (WFF) package are still only available to those families who meet a work-test and are not on any benefit, thus widening the gap between families ‘in work’ and others, between those seen as ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’. And since 2011, the situation for families in receipt of a benefit has worsened with the imposition of sanctions reducing benefit incomes by 50% or more if strict and often unreasonable requirements are not met.[ii]
The evidence in New Zealand is overwhelming: around 285,000 of our children (27% of all children) are found under the poverty line used by the Ministry of Social Development. Many of these children have their lifelong health and education compromised. For three out of five of those children, poverty persists over at least seven years,[iii] in other words for most of their early formative years. And, all the evidence shows that the longer the period on low income, the greater the harm.[iv]
Since the 1990s, the government’s social policy has been driven by a focus on paid work. As important as good, secure, paid work is for families, this approach ignores the invaluable work of parenting. When parents can’t meet norms of paid hours worked and require a state benefit, a discourse emerges of ‘benefit dependency’ in which parents are blamed for their poverty. Such a narrative generates support for the imposition of punitive sanctions and conditionality of benefit receipt, yet the vast majority of people who are currently poor, are poor in spite of their own best efforts. They are poor because welfare payments are low and limited, and the welfare system does not allow parents in paid employment to supplement their benefits in meaningful ways. They are poor because involuntary unemployment has eroded their assets and their capabilities. They may be poor because low-paid employment still keeps people in poverty: two in five poor children are in working families where at least one adult is in full-time employment or self-employed.[v] Policies, too, act to keep poor families poor: the WFF tax credit package is discriminatory and badly designed.[vi] The tax system remains punitive for low earners.
Unfortunately, conservative critics of welfare provision either deny that anyone in New Zealand is genuinely poor, or they insist, despite the evidence to the contrary, that most of those now in poverty are there because of poor life-style choices or an unwillingness to work. For such critics, the welfare net is too generous. They believe that any narrowing of the gap between welfare income and low pay would remove the pressure on the long-term unemployed to seek work. Poor children are disproportionately M?ori and Pasifika, and can be dismissed too easily by conservatives who demonstrate an underlying racial bias.
On 11 October 2012, the Minister for Social Development released the White Paper for Vulnerable Children, to be implemented by the Children's Action Plan. The Action Plan’s aim is: "Identifying, Supporting, and Protecting Vulnerable Children.”[vii] The narrow definition of ‘vulnerable children’ as those who are at risk of maltreatment by their caregivers ignores the social and economic conditions that create or exacerbate children’s vulnerability and the report is silent on the fact that poverty is the single most obvious factor in family violence.[viii] [ix] [x]
In 2014, despite claims of economic recovery after the protracted recession, reports from frontline social services suggest child poverty has continued to worsen. These reports were corroborated by revised figures released on 27 February: “Children in poverty vastly underestimated”. Queries from the OECD about the figures on child poverty led to the Treasury and Statistics New Zealand admitting a major error in calculations of household disposable income: they had overestimated incomes among poorer households by double-counting the Accommodation Supplement.
The Ministry of Social Development (MSD) emphasised that the mistake did not change the trend of inequality, but did increase it slightly, while Treasury’s chief economist Girol Karacaoglu said: "[T]here are no 'real world' impacts on New Zealanders from the miscalculations". He was saying that the errors do not affect individual or household benefit payments, tax credits or the tax people pay. While no child was made poorer as a result of the mistake, the miscalculations do have real world implications for the poorest children. Not knowing that 30,000 more children than previously reported were living under the lowest 50% poverty line has meant that for 3 years no official alarm bells were raised. The depth of child poverty has been seriously unrecognised as it is not only the ones not seen to be below the poverty line but, even more critically, most of the 205,000 children below the 50% line have less income than previously thought.
On 10 March, the Prime Minister announced that 20 September would be the 2014 election date. Children are waiting for the election winners to provide a better future. The aim of the CPAG series, Our Children, Our choice: Priorities for Policy, published over the coming months, is to provide an overview of the situation for many children in New Zealand, and to support the immediate adoption by all political parties of child-focussed policies to reduce child poverty and mitigate its effects.
This series comes out three years after CPAG’s report, Left Further Behind (2011), six years after CPAG’s report: Left Behind (2008), and ten years after the New Zealand government announced the rollout of its flagship family assistance policy, WFF. The reports provided ample evidence that despite WFF and other family-related policies, the poorest children have continued to be left behind relative to their peers and likely to suffer harmful consequences.
The 2014 publications recommend changes to current policy around children’s health; early childhood education and care; provision of compulsory education; housing; and family incomes. Each part is authored by experts in their field, and contains links to other resources including audio-visual material. This first part of the series focusses on the health of the poorest children in Aotearoa New Zealand. It closes with recommendations for better policies for our children.
[i] Dale, M.C., O’Brien, M. and St John, S. (eds) (2011) Left Further Behind: how policies fail the poorest children in New Zealand, Child Poverty Action Group Inc., http://www.cpag.org.nz/assets/Publications/121204%20LFB%20CPAG%202011.pdf
[ii] Wynd,D (2013). Benefit sanctions: creating an invisible underclass of children? Child Poverty Action Group, at http://www.cpag.org.nz/assets/Backgrounders/2-0%2028509%20Benefit%20Sanctions%20Report%20Sept%202013.pdf.
[iii] Craig E., Reddington A., Wicken A., Oben G., & Simpson J. (2013) Child Poverty Monitor 2013 Technical Report (Updated 2014). Dunedin. NZ Child & Youth Epidemiology Service, University of Otago.http://www.nzchildren.co.nz/document_downloads/2013%20Child%20Poverty%20Monitor%20Technical%20Report%20MASTER.pdf.
[iv] Mayer, S. (2002) The Influence of Parental Income on Children’s Outcomes, Ministry of Social Development, p. 6. at https://www.msd.govt.nz/documents/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/research/influence-parental-income/influence-of-parental-income.pdf.
[v] Perry, B. (2013) Household incomes in New Zealand: Trends in indicators of inequality and hardship
1982 to 2012. Ministry of Social Development, Wellington, p. 20, athttps://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/monitoring/household-incomes/index.html
[vi] St John, S. (2011) “Working for Families”, in Left Further Behind, M.C.Dale, M.O’Brien, S.St John (eds) Child Poverty Action Group Inc.pp. 51 -68, athttp://www.cpag.org.nz/assets/Publications/121204%20LFB%20CPAG%202011.pdf,
[ix] Satyanathan,D. and Pollack, A. (2012) Domestic Violence and Poverty, Michigan Family Impact Seminars, http://www.familyimpactseminars.org/s_mifis04c05.pdf ;
[x] Wynd, D. (2013) Child abuse: what role does poverty play? Child Poverty Action Group Inc.,http://www.cpag.org.nz/assets/Publications/130610%20CPAG%20Child%20Abuse%20Re