Editorial: Now about that 'proud record'

Last updated 05:00 11/12/2013

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OPINION: The National-led Government has declared "a proud record of putting children and their families first, with targeted support to those who need it most".

But a rather fiercely independent project, the Child Poverty Monitor, has slammed into the headlines with the first of a series of annual reports that offers something quite different from the Government's apparent squint-at-our-target approach.

It's a focus with more depth of field, revealing more widespread misery..

This is just the sort of focus the Government has simply been declining to bring to bear itself since at least 2009 when Ministry of Health officials' advocacy for a closer system of monitoring child poverty proved futile.

Children's Commissioner Russell Wills' own calls for such a measure have similarly gone unheeded in the corridors of power with Social Development Minister Paula Bennett declaring that the present "thoughtful and strategic approach to tackling complex social issues" suffices.

To his credit, Dr Wills simply turned elsewhere. A case of doing his job, really. The work is being done by the Otago University NZ Child and Youth Epidemiology Service and the J R McKenzie Trust is stumping up with the funds.

The monitor is not to be dismissed as the product of some partisan outfit. Though its first report provides ample ammunition for Opposition parties, it contains enough substance to merit more than mere political clamour.

The rate of child poverty is twice that of the 1980s and the deterioration has particularly worsened in the past five or six years. One in four children is deemed to be living in income poverty but for one in six it's as bad as going without basics like a warm house, decent shoes, doctor visits and fresh fruit and vegetables. Those at the most severe end of the spectrum are seriously more prone to respiratory illness and skin diseases - and nearly two-thirds of the impoverished are languishing in this state for long periods.

This is far from just a matter needing welfare reform. The working poor are evident here. Forty per cent of the 265,000 children in poverty are in a household where their parents work, but by the standards most of us would apply they still aren't getting by.

Once again, the Government needs to communicate with us not only on the basis of its proud record "look how much we're doing" but in a more comprehensive way that honestly squares up to the sheer scale of need, and calibrates its priorities off that.

Among the more coherent reactions to the new report has been that of the Public Health Association which points out that children growing up in poor households are more likely to become dependent on welfare, suffer family violence, do poorly at school and rely heavily on government-funded health care.

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All right. We knew this already. But the association's bottom line is valid: we still aren't truly treating money spent on child poverty as an investment, but as a cost. We concentrate too hard on how much we can afford to spend on it; not enough on the ultimate costs of what we're not up for doing.

The economy is improving. Some. Let's be clear, then, what our top priorities truly are. And whether anybody, Government or otherwise, should be proud of this situation.

- The Southland Times

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