Ignorance and want will return to haunt us

DAVE ARMSTRONG
Last updated 05:00 16/12/2013

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Dave Armstrong

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Given that I am one of the 1.6 million of Kiwis who recently put ''no religion'' on their census form, I don't get too excited about Christmas. But given there were pre-Christian pagan celebrations in late December, that's a good enough excuse to throw a turkey in the oven.

However, one Christmas tradition of which I heartily approve is the reading of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Local theatre legend Ray Henwood is currently performing it superbly at Circa. So what is it about A Christmas Carol that still makes it relevant 170 years after it was first published?

Everyone loves the supernatural mumbo-jumbo when mean old Scrooge gets visited by three ghosts who show him the sad life he will lead if he doesn't change his miserly ways.

But a lesser-known part of the story involves two urchins, a boy and girl. These ''yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish'' children are called Ignorance and Want, and, as John Key would say, their parents made ''poor choices''.

Anyone who read the excellent report on child poverty released by Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills will be aware that Ignorance and Want are alive and well in New Zealand today.

Minister Paula Bennett disputes the report's figure of 270,000 children in poverty and puts it closer to the 100,000 mark. But even that is outrageous.

There is an excellent argument that says in a civilised country we should immediately rectify this terrible inequality. But even if you believe in a competitive society and a ''hand-up, not a handout'' philosophy, you should still be worried about child poverty.

Why? Look at any number of serious criminals and many, though not all, will have grown up in dire poverty. It is not in the interests of the middle class to have really poor children in their midst. As Dickens says of Ignorance, ''beware of this boy, for on his brow I see written that which is Doom, unless the writing be erased''.

Even some of the Right acknowledge the value in eliminating child poverty. I remember attending a meeting, undercover, of a far-Right think tank some years ago.

All the neo-conservative luminaries were there, though Judith Collins had to leave early to vote against a particularly progressive piece of Labour government legislation. Eventually the topic got around to taxation, and a libertarian screamed that ''all taxation is cannibalism''.

It was quite touching to see Roger Douglas make an impassioned plea for at least some sort of taxation and welfare, as without it, he explained, everyone would have to pay a fortune in personal security as the unemployed burgled and mugged in order to eat.

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If we want to create a generational time bomb in this country - an intifada of young, ill-educated and angry youths - then we are going the right way about it.

The first generation of the truly poor was created by Roger Douglas's rationalisations in the 1980s, and topped up by Ruth Richardson and Jenny Shipley with their 1990 benefit cuts.

When Helen Clark came to power, her government kept benefits at Shipleyesque levels, though Labour's reduction in state house rentals helped some poor.

So how concerned is our present government about this second generation of poverty-stricken children? Given they don't even measure it - I'd say it's ''Bah, humbug''.

The Government seems obsessed with measuring exactly where on the league table each children stands in the ''core'' subjects, yet being in the child poverty relegation zone seems unimportant.

Perhaps Mr Key should appoint Hekia Parata minister of social development. She could introduce National Standards on Child Poverty.

All government departments would have to regularly assess poverty, and if any child was to be found living under the poverty line, action would have to be taken immediately.

This Christmas, in between stocking up on turkey and Tattinger, spare a thought for Ignorance and Want. A donation to the heroes at the City Mission and Downtown Community Ministry might add some fizz to your bubbly.

And bear in mind that if we don't do something about child poverty, it won't just be Santa dropping down the chimney in 20 years while the children, and grandchildren, are sleeping.

- The Dominion Post

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