The Dominion Post this morning reports on the “hidden shame” of child poverty in New Zealand. To those of us who have been actively working on child poverty, it sadly comes as no surprise to hear that more and more schools are lining up to be part of charitable projects that provide breakfast to vulnerable kids at school. KidsCan has been doing this for several years now, with great results, but they simply can’t keep up with demand. Meanwhile the successful Red Cross Breakfast in Schools programme has been cancelled after its major sponsor, Countdown, pulled out.
We know that 1 in 5 children live in poverty in New Zealand. That’s more than 200,000 kids. They go without breakfast (and other meals), raincoats, and shoes, and they often live in crowded, cold, damp houses. They get sick, with preventable illnesses like glue ear and rheumatic fever, which hamper their educational opportunities and shorten their lifespans. In short, they lack the essentials, and thus are denied opportunity to have a good start in life. I was deeply shocked to learn recently at a hui with Whakawhetu on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome that there may be a connection between SIDS and malnourishment of mothers during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Hunger is hurting our kids before they even had a chance. And its killing some.
The idea that we could have “sponsored” children in New Zealand is unpalatable to many of us, but that is essentially what KidsCan are promoting with their new ‘In Our Own Backyard’ campaign. While I applaud the work KidsCan and others are doing, we should never have let things get this bad. These programmes will help deal with the immediate crisis, but we urgently need big picture policy changes that can permanently change the picture for our kids.
In my speech to the Green Party AGM recently, I outlined the Green Party’s plan to bring 100,000 kids out of poverty within 3 years. There are three bold but simple things we could do right now that would achieve this:
1. Extend the so-called ‘In-work Tax Credit’ to children whose parents rely on a benefit. Denying them this support is supposed to incentivise work, but it’s in breach of human rights law, and in an environment where jobs and money are painfully short, all it does is deny some of our most at-risk kids the essentials they need. Extending this support would provide an extra $60 per week to these families, which could be the difference between paying the power bill, or not, or putting fresh veges on the table, or not.
2. Reinstate and extend the Training Incentive Allowance to help sole parents, and those on the sickness and invalids’ benefits to study degree level courses. MSD’s own evidence is very clear those who used this allowance to study moved off the benefit on average 6 months earlier than those who didn’t, and moved into higher paying jobs when they did. The outcomes for their kids (and the positive impact of seeing their parents seek higher learning) are incredibly positive.
3. Raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour immediately, and eventually to 2/3 of the average wage. Many parents who do move off benefits and into work find themselves no better off financially – and sometimes worse off – on the minimum wage, once childcare, transport, and food costs are taken into account. If work is to benefit families, it must be for a decent, living wage, and sadly this is not the case for thousands of families.
With these changes, we’re confident we can bring 100,000 kids out of poverty. As this morning’s story shows, we need this urgently. Governments have choices, and this Government’s choice not to support kids out of poverty, but to actively punish them for their parents’ situation is both negligent and callous. We would choose differently.