The government’s Budget delivered last month shows no mercy for the families with children suffering from poverty-related illnesses such as meningococcal disease.
This is the view of Auckland paediatrician, Innes Asher, speaking to the Child Poverty Action Group at a Budget breakfast on 20 May, the day the Budget was delivered.
Dr Asher, who is professor in paediatrics at the University of Auckland, said New Zealand’s figures were bad enough for adults with one in 15 living in poverty, but for children, the figure was an ‘appalling’ one in three or about 300,000 children.
More children die in New Zealand than in many other similar countries and we have high rates of deaths among Māori children, 90 percent of them potentially avoidable.
New Zealand’s adolescents and young adults are dying excessively due to motor vehicle crashes and suicide.
Dental health here used to be the best in the world, ‘but policy changes have plunged us downwards. Children and young people now have disturbingly high rates of missing and filled teeth.’
Dr Asher said there was a danger we would become used to these high rates of disease, injury, disability and death, ‘even though the rates are shocking in comparison with other OECD countries’.
The government had introduced some ‘modest’ measures to redress the deficits for children, such as building some new state houses but there was little evidence of improved child health.
These were ‘not nearly enough,’ she said, ‘to address the shortfall in need resulting from our country’s long-term neglect of children’.
She quoted Dame Anne Salmond who said at the 2003 Knowledge Wave Conference ‘If we want a prosperous knowledge economy … the fate of the bottom 20 percent of our children should be at the top of our list of national priorities …’
Dr Asher said though the Budget was said to be about securing the future of New Zealand, the word ‘children’ appeared only three times in its 18 pages.
This showed how children were currently undervalued.
‘[Finance minister, Dr Michael] Cullen says that too much jam now is likely to lead to crumbs later. What about the children who don’t even have bread to put jam on?’
Dr Asher said the elderly were largely protected from poverty because of inflation-adjusted superannuation.
But children’s needs were overlooked in the ‘sweeping economic and social reforms’ of the mid-1980s to mid-1990s.
‘These reforms were associated with increasing inequality and poverty especially among children.
As a paediatrician, Dr Asher said she saw ‘shocking rates of poverty-related disease and injury’, which had escalated in the 1990s.
‘Many children are unnecessarily permanently disabled, with lasting costs to them, their families and society.’
Dr Asher said 300,000 children in this country would not have access to nutritional food, adequately sized and warm housing, clothing, bedding, soap and towels; phone and transport. They would not be able to pay to play sport, to visit the doctor or pay for medicine or education.
‘The need to fully redress the policy neglect of children has never been more urgent,’ she said.