OPINION: One in four New Zealand children are living in poverty, with one in six children going without basic necessities. Four professors of paediatrics - ANDREW DAY, BARRY TAYLOR, DAWN ELDER and INNES ASHER - have issued this "call to action" on the problem.
We write to congratulate the Child Poverty Partnership on their release of the 2013 Child Poverty Monitor and to add our voices to their call for action on the immense issue of child poverty in New Zealand.
The 2013 Child Poverty Monitor is the first of a series of annual reports to be prepared and presented by the Child Poverty Partnership, an initiative of the NZ Children's Commissioner, the JR McKenzie Trust and the University of Otago's NZ Child and Youth Epidemiology Service.
This report highlights the current crisis of childhood poverty in NZ today: thousands and thousands of our children face deprivation and hunger every day.
The report found one in four New Zealand children were living in poverty, with one in six children going without basic necessities. This could mean not having a bed, delaying a doctor's visit or missing out on meals. In addition, poverty often goes hand- in-hand with overcrowding or other substandard living conditions. We and our colleagues in paediatric units around the country see the very real consequences of childhood poverty every day of the year. Poverty is closely linked with increased risks of many common childhood diseases. We regularly see children needing repeated admissions to hospital for pneumonia or babies requiring multiple trips to hospital for bronchiolitis (a wheezing illness seen in infancy). Increased rates of infectious diseases are also seen much more commonly in children living in poverty - often in combination with household crowding. Many of these illnesses - such as rheumatic fever and tuberculosis - are conditions that people might expect to see more commonly in a developing country, not in New Zealand.
Poverty also limits access to nutritious food, leading to poor diet and sometimes malnutrition. This might mean children with no breakfast or children with parents having no money to buy food for a decent meal. It is clear that hungry, malnourished children do not learn well at school.
In addition, poor nutrition also influences many common childhood diseases; for example, babies who are undernourished are more likely to be admitted to hospital for pneumonia. Poor nutrition also leads to worse health outcomes and longer stays in hospital. Poverty intersects closely with these factors of overcrowding, malnutrition, illness and impaired learning. In combination, these factors contribute to a cycle of poverty. This means that the children facing poverty today become the adults living in poverty tomorrow, leading in turn to an environment of poverty for future generations.
A large number of children needing hospital-level paediatric care stems from a situation of poverty. That acute care costs hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. The long-term cost of heart damage due to rheumatic fever alone costs $12.8 million.
But the impact of child poverty on health is not just financial. It takes an emotional toll. Imagine being in a situation where your child is in hospital largely because you cannot provide for them some basic necessities of life, such as a warm, dry, uncrowded, home, three square meals a day, warm water for washing, transport to the doctor or the doctor's fee.
Because we see the results of poverty every day we have some idea of the scale of the problem. However, many New Zealanders may not have any idea of the immense issue of poverty or meet any of its numerous victims.
We must all take up the challenge raised by the Child Poverty Monitor. Together, and only together, can we face and overcome these problems faced today by our children and tomorrow by our children's children. We need to see everyone, including all parliamentary parties, working together on a long-term strategy that outlasts the normal three-year political cycle.
Professor Andrew Day, Paediatrics Department, University of Otago, Christchurch; Professor Barry Taylor, Paediatrics and Child's Health, Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago; Professor Dawn Elder, Paediatrics and Child Health, University of Otago, Wellington; Professor Innes Asher, Department of Paediatrics: Child and Youth Health, University of Auckland
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