Poverty should worry us all

Last updated 05:00 10/12/2013

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OPINION: Nellie Hunt is without a home and was last night preparing to move with her children into a tent. Advocates say she has slipped through the cracks. Her story, highlighted by The Press yesterday, should worry us all.

The figures on child poverty, and poverty-related ill health, issued yesterday by Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills reveal a fuller picture. Nellie Hunt may very well become the reluctant poster-girl for those stats. According to the figures, last year about a quarter of children aged up to 17, about 265,000, lived in poverty. That meant many of them were living in households that were unable to provide adequate housing, clothing, food, medical care and the like. For many, living in poverty was persistent - those who were poor when the study was done are likely to remain that way for many years and for some - about 10 per cent of children in New Zealand - the poverty was classed as severe.

The reality behind those numbers is shown in the series The Press is running this week telling the stories of a few of those for whom these numbers reflect the day-to-day facts of their lives. They show starkly what most of us are probably vaguely aware of: that there is a group of vulnerable people in society being left behind while the country as a whole generally flourishes. For most of the population, though, that vague awareness is as far as it goes. For most, life is reasonably comfortable - why should we care if some are not doing so well?

Compassion, humanity and empathy should make us all care. But if there are the privileged for whom that is not enough, it is worth considering that the impact of impoverished lives for children is sooner or later felt across the rest of society. It is notorious that New Zealand has gastro-intestinal and bronchial diseases at rates otherwise found only in Third World countries, a fact almost certainly related to overcrowding and poor housing. Illnesses that might easily be treated are left until they become emergencies. Poor dietary habits formed in childhood are often carried over into adulthood, where they add further to the burden on the health system.

Perhaps worse is that poverty often inhibits the educational achievement of children perpetuating the cycle of poverty into another generation.

There are no easy solutions to dealing with child poverty. If heavier spending by itself were the answer, the problem should have been dealt with decades ago. More is spent in this area than there has ever been.

An expert advisory group set up by the Children's Commissioner last year suggested that better targeting of benefits might help. The advisory group noted, however, that would involved trade-offs, with some gaining entitlements and others losing them. Despite that, it is an idea worth considering further, particularly in light of the fact that assistance aimed at helping a child is likely to have the greatest beneficial impact.

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The Children's Commissioner has also recommended a rigorous measure of poverty so we can stop debating about the measure and start fixing the problem. He is surely right about that.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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