Editorial: Budget belt-tightening rebounds on children

Cecily McNeill2011 The government will announce an austere budget on May 19 utterly devoid of any lollies as it struggles to cope with restoration in Christchurch on the back of…

Cecily McNeill

The government will announce an austere budget on May 19 utterly devoid of any lollies as it struggles to cope with restoration in Christchurch on the back of a flat, recessionary economy. It is likely that the hardest hit by government belt-tightening will again be families with young children. 

This country already ranks the lowest of 29 countries for child health outcomes in a 2009 OECD report and has the third highest income discrepancy of those 29 countries. One in five New Zealand children lives in poverty.

Yet this government reduced the previous administration’s free health care for under-sixes from around the clock to between 9am and 5pm. As GP Dr Nikki Turner pointed out in a recent forum on children, they do not confine their illnesses to business hours on weekdays. Symptoms often surface when the child is going to sleep at night.

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) is calling on the government to take action to improve children’s after-hours free access to doctors. It highlights the importance of cost as a barrier to healthcare, and the key role this can play in New Zealand’s poor child health statistics. ‘Weekends in particular need greater attention, as can be seen with the number of children turning up for treatment at hospital accident and emergency departments,’ Dr Turner says.

As well the 2010 budget made many small cuts to early childhood education which have affected more than half of all enrolled children, according to NZEI figures. This amounts to a loss in funding of $1.26 per child per hour.

Will the government continue its fiscal attack on the most vulnerable of New Zealand’s citizens in the upcoming budget or will it value the investment?

Studies in the United States have shown healthy cost/benefit returns on investment in early childhood education.

A US paper, Early Childhood Education for All: A Wise Investment given at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology conference in Boston, says that for every $1 spent on ECE, there is a $13 return.

It also says that while the returns are high for vulnerable children (those at risk of failing at school, or from social problems, poor parenting, drug and alcohol issues in the home, poverty, mental illness etc.) the social returns are high for all children.

Immediate returns arise from workforce participation and taxation, saving on benefits, as well as short-term returns from children’s issues being picked up earlier. Longer term returns result from lower crime and fewer social problems and higher employment levels 20 years down the track. Studies have tracked people up to age 50.

The New Zealand Centre for Educational Research has found similar results from other studies of investment in children’s education. One study of quality provision with teaching staff qualified in special education and early childhood development followed the children to middle age and reported that a dollar spent in early childhood saved $17 at age 40.

The government would do well to heed such studies and start viewing children as vital to this country’s future. When Jesus said, ‘Let the little children to come to me … for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs’ [Mt 19:14] it was a shockingly radical idea. These days we believe we care more about children than 2,000 years ago. But is this really true when discrepancies in access to care are such that a fifth live in poverty?