Time for some gutsy decisions on tackling poverty

One in five Kiwi kids live in poverty, apparently.

It’s a startling figure and many of you may struggle to believe it. But it means more than 260,000 children live on struggle street.

It’s a number that the government-appointed Children’s Commissioner, Russell Wills, often quotes. He’s a paediatrician and has seen the problem first-hand treating children. 

Now Prime Minister John Key has decided his Government better do something about it – because it’s embarrassing on his watch. This is dangerous territory for governments because you’re inserting yourself into how people choose to spend their money.

In the 1970s, poverty was probably a family not owning a car and being skinny.

Now it’s not being able to afford to fix the vehicle in the driveway and obesity is more of a concern, based on families eating cheap foods high in sugar.

Yes, that’s a generalisation, but in order to tackle poverty it’s important to attempt to define what it means today.

Poverty is children living in crowded, damp homes who don’t get three square meals a day.

They may not have their own bed, they won’t see a doctor when they’re sick and many of them will be admitted to hospital with serious poverty-related illnesses such as respiratory problems and skin infections.

They may live in households where paying the rent accounts for 60 per cent of the family’s income every week.

I met one such extended family in South Auckland recently. There were 13 of them living in a two-bedroom house.

The parents are nice people, with seven children. They shared a tiny home with three other adults and another child. Dad works full-time at a meat factory and they had been waiting 10 months for a state house. They had beds in the dining room and lounge.

They couldn’t afford the cost of a private rental home. One son, aged 11, had a serious lung problem. I saw poverty in action that day and it was deeply disturbing. I highlighted their plight on my radio show and within weeks a shamed Housing NZ had found them a home.

The experts warn that one in three Maori and Pacific children live in poverty.  Wills says ‘‘child poverty has doubled by any measure’’ since he was a kid. It’s hard not to argue that our welfare state is failing.

This was confirmed this week  with the latest Unicef Children of Recession report, saying child poverty numbers have largely stayed the same since 2008.

Australia improved its child poverty rate by 6 per cent, while Chile and Poland also had big improvements. But here in paradise our situation has stagnated, despite all the programmes and spending in this area.

Maybe it’s time to admit that welfare is going into pockets that don’t really need it.

We gave billions away in tax cuts to the middle and upper classes six years ago – that hasn’t helped close any gaps.

 We’ve spent more than $12 billion on Working for Families top-ups to low and middle-income families – but beneficiaries miss out on this. We’ve pumped hundreds of millions into free early childhood education for three and four year-olds without actually asking families if they need the assistance.

And we give billions of dollars in superannuation payments every year to well-off people because they deserve it and have worked all their lives – so that’s untouchable. 

Handouts and hand-ups aplenty are easy voter winners. Maybe it’s time to drop the middle class welfare and properly target those most in need.

How? Well we could follow Australia’s lead.  They’ve adopted policies such as cash payments to low income families, a tax credit system seen as more generous and inclusive, and a back to school bonus.

But even then, more money in wallets doesn’t determine what it’s spent on. At some stage personal responsibility applies and you just can’t legislate for that.

Maybe the solution is not to throw more money at the problem, but to focus on the entrenched underclass and families that need  to be educated and taken right back to the basics.

It’s not patronising, just an acknowledgment that it’ll take some gutsy political decisions to make a real difference.

The Dominion Post