The links between mould, cold and children’s learning
In the well-known Charles Dickens story, published in 1843, The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come reveals to Ebenezer Scrooge how the crippled Tiny Tim will die unless Scrooge improves the treatment of his office clerk, the boy’s father, Bob Cratchit. No matter how industrious Cratchit is, Dickens tells us, families like the Cratchits will never be able to get out from under without support from the better off. One of the points Dickens consistently makes in his heart-rending social morality tales is that children are particularly vulnerable and dependent, and therefore a society that does not respect and provide properly for its children is a very harsh one indeed. We pride ourselves on the belief that twenty-first-century New Zealand is a less harsh society than nineteenth-century Victorian England. But is that true?
In June 2015, two-year-old Emma-Lita Bourne from Otara died from a brain haemorrhage due to a blood clot. The coroner reported that Emma-Lita had been suffering from a pneumonia-like illness prior to her death. The coroner also judged that the damp, cold conditions of the house in winter where the large family lived had contributed to the child’s poor health. Emma-Lita’s mother, Latisha, said that there was mould on the walls and floors and that the house lacked carpets and drapes. The family could not afford to use the heater it had been provided by Housing New Zealand.
Yet, we know perfectly well how to fix-up poor quality housing so that children in poverty have the opportunity to live in a mould-free, dry home. We know how to ensure that families living in poverty have enough financial support to keep their home warm in winter. We know how to provide the security of long-term accommodation that children in poverty need to lead more stable and predictable lives. All these are matters of political will and fiscal priority. It is not rocket science.
The fact that as a country we do not do enough of these things means that children living in poverty suffer unnecessarily. Unhealthy and insecure accommodation has adverse effects on children’s health and wellbeing, which in turn affects their learning and development. Among the 20% of families living in significant deprivation, many cannot provide separate beds for children, or separate bedrooms for older children of the opposite sex, keep the main rooms warm because of cost, keep the house warm in winter or keep it free of dampness or mould. Data shows that 47% of Pasifika children, 25% of Maori, 21% of Asian/Indian but only 5% of European children live in overcrowded homes. How are children in these circumstances supposed to do homework or read for pleasure, or learn to play and socialise informally with each other, or even sleep properly when siblings of different ages go to bed in the same room at different times?
More generally, it is not difficult to imagine the effect on children’s self-esteem and wellbeing of living for years in a succession of mouldy, damp, cold, overcrowded, poorly lit, barely furnished houses. In addition to a range of entirely avoidable physical illnesses and infections, poor quality housing is associated with higher incidences of unhappiness, stress, depression and other forms of mental illness. Learning doesn’t just happen at school. Children spend three quarters of their day not at school, and most of this where they live. Children will certainly learn in these conditions, but the learnings are hardly those most of us would want for our own children.
Insecurity of housing further reduces the chances of children making friends and building social networks. Frequent transience from one temporary accommodation to the next breaks the patterns of attendance and belonging in early childhood education, school and local community health and support services. This is no way for children to become successful and confident learners and contributing members of our society. One study, by Shelter in the UK, suggested that housing was linked to an average of up to 55 days’ absence from school each year. This is more than a term, more than quarter of the school year, simply as a consequence of poor-quality housing.
Article 27 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child recognises the right ‘of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development’. The responsibility for this is shared. Parents and caregivers have the primary responsibility for the child’s social development ‘within their financial abilities and capacities’. States have the responsibility to assist parents, including where necessary the provision of ‘nutrition, clothing and housing’.
There is sound research evidence that better-quality housing is associated with better physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development – in other words, with better learning, better education. Why wouldn’t any government commit itself to ensuring that children are housed adequately at the beginning of their lives? A major problem in New Zealand today, though, is that government has to a great extent washed its hands of its responsibility to provide for the rights of the child in favour of market solutions: the labour market will provide sufficient minimum-wage jobs for beneficiary parents; the private rental housing market will provide sufficient accommodation for the poor. In the meantime, one in four of our children’s health, wellbeing, self-esteem and education are allowed to suffer unnecessarily. Dickens would have been shocked.