Gospel manifesto: Every child counts

Feature April 2014 Two leading academics are calling on New Zealanders to use the coming general election to press for an end to child poverty. Mike O’Brien and Susan St…

Gospel manifesto: Every child counts Archdiocese of WellingtonFeature

April 2014

Two leading academics are calling on New Zealanders to use the coming general election to press for an end to child poverty. Mike O’Brien and Susan St John of Auckland University say politicians must address the fact that one in five children lives below the poverty line and the government’s own figures put 175,000 of our children in families whose disposable income after housing costs is less than half the median.

Mike O’Brien who’s associate professor in the University of Auckland’s School of Counselling, Human Services and Social Work, cites Jesus as saying in Matthew’s Gospel, ‘Let the little children come to me…’ [Mt 19:14]. In this, and other contexts, children were to be given a special place in the society in which they lived. ‘Here then lies the genesis for reflecting on how well we provide (or fail to provide) for children and their needs in contemporary society. New Zealand does well for many of its children, but there are far too many for whom our care and provision is woefully inadequate.

‘This is most clearly illustrated in ensuring all children have the basics in such fundamental areas as food, clothing, educational opportunity, healthcare access and the chance to participate in the recreational activities that their peers enjoy.

For a small number of children, their family’s poverty may be the result of not spending money wisely, but the vast majority live in families which do not receive enough money. The majority are also families receiving a benefit of some kind. However, there is also a significant group (around 40 percent) who are in households where there is somebody in paid work. Māori and Pacific children are significantly over-represented among children living in households below the poverty line.

By themselves, children are unable to change their circumstances – they depend on what their parents do and what we do as a society to ensure they are adequately provided for. [To reduce poverty levels], he says, we  need to do three things: First, benefit levels will have to be increased; second, wages for those in low-paid work need to be improved; and third, we need to remove the discrimination faced by children in benefit households whose parents are denied the Work Tax Credit simply because their carer is not in paid work.

‘What we do to improve the lives of these children and what we demand of our political leaders to put in place policies which reduce child poverty will be the most important test for this year’s election.

‘Children have only one opportunity to enjoy and learn from the experience of being a child. As a society, we can do a great deal to make this experience the best possible for all children, supporting and encouraging parents or carers to provide for children, and in what we demand from politicians.

‘The critical place to begin is with policies and programmes which reduce child poverty. These are important for the children now and for us as a society.

‘So, the gospel message about the special place of children in New Zealand society in 2014 contains two closely related elements.. First, all children matter and policies need to reflect this. Second, reducing child poverty must be treated as a critical priority. The question we all need to ask of all policies is: how do these policies treat children and reduce child poverty?’

Meanwhile, Susan St John, who is associate professor of Economics, University of Auckland, says a badly structured economy where desperately poor people need foodbanks and loan sharks to survive, means churches and other NGOs become overwhelmed in meeting basic needs. ‘This leaves too little time for the church’s key role of nurturing the spiritual growth of families and helping to strengthen relationships and build cohesive communities.

‘Politicians must say how they will make sure that all low-income families, especially the most marginalised, those supported by benefits, have enough money to survive on and to prevent the damaging effects of poverty on their children.’

‘Current policies for families have been driven by a focus that has made paid work, of any kind, society’s ultimate goal. Families on benefits have become the new pariahs in a judgmental, punitive and uncaring society. A mother’s unpaid work of nurturing her children has been rendered invisible and treated as of no worth.

The welfare system does not allow parents to supplement their benefits in meaningful ways and the tax system is punitive. Another cruel policy is adding GST at 15 percent to such basic needs as food and electricity. Policies such as Working for Families, Paid Parental Leave and early childhood care and education subsidies are discriminatory, badly designed and inadequate.

With high costs for school fees, uniforms, daycare, school trips, doctors’ visits and medicines for over sixes, many children have blighted and restricted childhoods. But worse, a regime of benefit sanctions is now tipping the most vulnerable into an abyss from which they may never recover. In an election year these policies must be challenged.

Christians understand the need for inclusion and the power of redemption. No-one deserves to be shut out, let alone innocent children.

For the past three years the Ministry of Social Development has said that 175,000 children live in families where the disposable income after housing costs is less than half the median household income adjusted for family size. This line is impossibly low and these families have nothing in reserve, hence the growth in foodbanks, debts to loan sharks and hospital admissions for third world diseases.

‘We should remind our politicians that shocking as 175,000 of our children in significant hardship sounds, we were actually misled.

After correcting for Treasury’s major blunder in counting, we now know that as many as 250,000 children are below the 50 percent line. Many are well below.

She asks that politicians to:

  • pledge to treat all children equally
  • change policies such as Working for Families to give the proper support to all of the worst-off children,
  • see all work as valuable, and
  • treat those who cannot work with respect?