More children than elderly living in hardship

New Zealand is not treating its children fairly, writes Nikki Turner.

The recent Court of Appeal ruling on discrimination against children from beneficiary families stated that these children are discriminated against with the In-Work Tax Credit part of the Working for Families Package, creating material disadvantage.

However, the court also ruled that discrimination is justified on the basis of creating a goal of incentivising people into work.

So the moral high ground, that discrimination has taken place, is won but the legal case is lost in that the Government is allowed to discriminate.

The origins lie in the introduction of the Working for Families package in 2004.

This policy has been very important in helping to ease the burden for many children from low-income families, but despite worthwhile economic gains in this package for many families, a significant part of Working for Families was ring-fenced and used for a completely different purpose.

Rather than staying true to the intention of benefiting children, it was turned into an incentive payment for parents to encourage them to return to work.

The assistance to low-income families was renamed the "In- Work Tax Credit" - a politically shrewd move to obscure its origins.

The result was that children living with caregivers who were dependent on a state benefit (where a sole parent is working less than 20 hours a week or a couple less than 30 hours a week) were denied the $60 a week for one to three children and a further $15 a child for larger families.

The gains from an in-work incentive can be argued, and there are likely to be some. However, it is a very blunt stick that takes no account of the reasons parents are beneficiaries, no account of illness, job losses, redundancy, economic downturns or any other form of bad luck such as earthquakes or mine disasters.

This deliberate discrimination results in a significant reduction of household income for the poorest in our society and particularly for the children.

Even though legally we are allowed to discriminate against the poorest children in our society, is that what we really want to be doing?

Now is the time for New Zealand to have a real debate about what sort of society we are, and what society we wish to be. In particular, active discrimination, such as is seen in this example, is part of the growing equity gap that New Zealand has created over the past 30 years.

Increasing inequity comes with heavy consequences to all society.

Income does matter. No matter how feckless we may wish to believe others are, it is bloody hard to bring up healthy, successful children on the present lowest incomes. To buy nutritious food, clothing, manage doctors' fees and decent housing is a big enough challenge. Certainly there is little chance for activities, sports, music or other opportunities for participation in society.

To discriminate against those who clearly need the most help seems incredibly short-sighted.

New Zealand data shows one in five of our children lives in severe and significant hardship, much higher numbers than any other age group. How can it be acceptable for 20 per cent of children to be living in hardship compared to less than 5 per cent of our elderly population?

A large amount of evidence attests to the importance of income adequacy for children being vital to good short and long- term outcomes, particularly for the very young, when the most important physical, mental and emotional development is taking place.

We do so much better for the elderly in New Zealand, because - thankfully - we do not discriminate against the elderly with universal superannuation. It is not targeted and is non- judgmental.

Universal support for one end of life is seen as an important part of New Zealand society, but not for the other end of life. That 80 per cent of our poorest citizens are children is chilling and feels morally wrong.

Individual cases can be found to back up our own prejudices against others, yet there is plenty of evidence in other countries that reducing inequalities does produce much better outcomes overall, particularly for children.

Is New Zealand willing to look seriously at our current direction, or is it just too hard for everyone to give a little more thought to redistributing our resources more fairly? Dr Nikki Turner is an associate professor at Auckland University's school of population health and the health spokeswoman for the Child Poverty Action Group.

The Dominion Post