Time for action to bring down the high cost of being poor

Last updated 05:00 10/12/2013

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It has been a week of grim reading for New Zealand children.

OPINION: Last week's PISA results showed New Zealand children slipping down the OECD education rankings, then, on the 20th anniversary of New Zealand's ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the latest Unicef report took New Zealand to task over its failure to deal with the inequities, including child poverty, experienced by many New Zealand children.

Now, the Child Poverty Monitor from Otago University shows 265,000 New Zealand children living in poverty, with 10 per cent of children in households that are both income-poor and experiencing material hardship. The life chances of these children will be significantly constrained: for them, there is a high cost to being poor.

The report also highlights the impact of low income and social inequities on children's health.

While the number of children's injuries has fallen, the key barometer of socioeconomic inequality for children - hospitalisation rates for diseases with a social gradient (that is, diseases sensitive to socioeconomic conditions, for example skin infections) - has continued to increase. While hospitalisation rates fell during the 2000s, they jumped sharply in 2008-2009, and have continued to rise since then.

For children, the impacts of infectious diseases can be severe and long-term for both the child and the household. Sickness also cuts across other areas of a child's life, for example, they may miss out on schooling.

Illness is also a drain on household resources, requiring money for visits to the doctor, transport and filling prescriptions.

Recurrent illness is also strongly linked to poor housing and poor nutrition. While free doctor's visits for children under 6 have improved affordability for younger children, the rising number of hospital admissions for infectious diseases suggests we have a long way to go.

At this point it is easy to turn off and feel this is mostly down to poor parenting, and not the responsibility of the wider community or the state. However, international evidence very clearly shows a country that puts more financial and social support in does reap the rewards of better social and health outcomes.

New Zealand's child poverty is about the large equity gap we as a society are willing to accept and, sadly, ignore. The result is large numbers of children getting more illnesses, having reduced social and educational opportunities, and falling behind their peers.

We now have three reports in the space of a week outlining the problem. Let's talk about the solution. The turnaround in immunisation rates and closing the equity gaps for Maori and Pacific children shows that with sustained political support and genuine cross-sector collaboration, we can improve outcomes for children.

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Child poverty is a much more complex, multifaceted problem requiring complex solutions, but it is not unfixable.

New Zealand has had a history of cherry-picking a few issues without taking a systematic approach: adequate and affordable housing, better social policy and adequacy of the lowest incomes, sustainable parental employment, social network supports, early childhood education, and access to health services are all part of the solution. Both the Children's Commissioner's Expert Advisory Group and the recent report of the Health Select Committee have recommendations that would significantly improve the health and wellbeing of thousands of children. A key focus of both was the need for greater investment in very early childhood.

Both reports also emphasised the setting of a child poverty target and measuring and monitoring progress towards that. This would show that we were taking child poverty seriously, and would impose political accountability for meeting targets.

It also gives a benchmark to ensure that taxpayers' money is being used wisely: as the Health Select Committee report noted, if programmes are not delivering results, they should be replaced.

All the main political parties have acknowledged the need to do something about child poverty.

As we go into an election year, it is time for them to outline how they can work together to do something about it.

Indeed, perhaps we can all reflect on what we might do as stories of overstretched foodbanks and budgeting services coincide with the festive season. Dealing effectively with child poverty will require us all - government, communities, parents - to act together, not just for this Christmas but for many more to come.

Donna Wynd is the chief researcher and policy analyst for Child Poverty Action Group.

Nikki Turner is an associate professor at Auckland University's faculty of medical and health sciences, and the health spokeswoman for the Child Poverty Action Group.

- Wellington


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