Sunday, May 24, 2015

New Zealand and Child Povery

 In New Zealand there are somewhere from 60,000 to 100,000 children living in "severe deprivation", and in all 240,000 to 260,000 children are living in relative poverty. Every day in New Zealand there are children who go to school hungry. Some reports estimate up to 40,000 children arrive at school without being fed breakfast.

Jonathan Boston from Victoria University, and Simon Chapple from Otago University, have calculated that for families need $100 to $200 a week rather than $25 worth of benefit to raise them above the 60 per cent of median income relative poverty line. "Numerous myths abound," they say. "Some of these have been repeated so often that they are lodged deep in the public consciousness." So entrenched are they that Boston has come to believe that only an event as terrible as  war, or a great depression could get enough of the population to see children in poor families as "our" children, rather than "their" children, and commit to lifting them out of the poverty into which they had the bad fortune to be born.

Claim One: There is little or no real child poverty in New Zealand

Child poverty here is "relative", and while not as debilitating as severe or debilitating malnutrition, it is real, measurable and often leaves "significant and long-lasting scars". "This includes poor educational attainment, higher unemployment, poor health and higher incidence of involvement in crime. For such reasons it matters," Boston and Chapple say. There are generally two ways poverty is measured: income poverty (living in households where the income is 60 per cent or less than the median household income), and material hardship (where children lack things like two pairs of sturdy shoes, or a winter coat, or live in draughty, damp houses). The Ministry of Social Development takes this seriously and tracks child poverty. Depending on the precise measure of income poverty adopted, between 120,000 and 260,000 children are living in this relative poverty.

Claim two: It's the fault of lazy or irresponsible parents.

Undoubtedly, say Chapple and Boston, some parents do make bad choices, and there's growing evidence that being in poverty actually reduces reasoning capacity. But: "It seems unlikely that poverty is primarily due to people's poor choices." Why, they ask are overall poverty rates three times higher in the US than in Scandinavia? Are Americans lazier and stupider? And why are there so few people over age 65 in New Zealand in poverty? Do they stop making bad choices on turning 65, or is it that society chooses to provide them with NZ Super? And was there a sudden outbreak of bad choices in New Zealand in the 1990s after benefits levels were slashed and unemployment rose?

Claim three: The real problem is that poor people have too many children

Some believe strongly that the poor can't afford the luxury of children, and simply shouldn't have them, or at least not so many of them. It is unreasonable for society to pay to raise them. The authors say the concensus has been for societies to share the costs of raising children, and that by investing in those children, society receives a return in the future. The authors say there are major ethical problems associated with the view that the poor should not have children, or that a third, or a fourth child should somehow be abandoned by the state and attract no further support.

Claim four: Assisting poor families will simply encourage them to have more children.

Some believe that having babies is a business, with increased benefits being the reward. But the best international evidence suggests that financial incentives do not have a big effect on fertility levels, the academics say. And, "Current policy settings in New Zealand favour families with only one or two children. Partly as a result, poverty rates are higher amongst families with more than two children."

Claim five: The real problem is poor parenting

There is no need to choose between poor parenting and poverty as being the real problem, the authors say. "Both are real and disturbing." And both poor parenting and poverty cause harm to children, who are powerless against either force. In fact, Boston and Chapple say: "There is good evidence that the stress and anxiety caused by poverty are factors that contribute to poor parenting and harmful outcomes for children."

Claim six: We can't do anything about child poverty

Some believe the "perversity" thesis, that anything you try to do will only make things worse. Some believe the "jeopardy" thesis that spending on alleviating child poverty will put other policy objectives like economic growth at risk. Then there are those who buy into the "futility" myth that nothing can be done. This last often argue that as poverty in New Zealand is relative, it can never be reduced, but Boston and Chapple say that stance is often the result of mixing up median income and average income. Relative poverty can be alleviated even if the median income does not move. And, they say, the evidence is clear that "Child poverty rates are responsive to government policies."

Claim seven: We can't afford to reduce child poverty

This is really a question of whether spending money on child poverty is "worth it", the academics say. The authors say we can't afford not to. "Child poverty imposes significant costs both on the children affected and on wider society. Investing well in children produces positive economic and social returns, and is also likely to save on future fiscal costs." Indeed: "The international and domestic evidence suggest that the scale and severity of child poverty are at least partly matters of societal choice." And, they say: "Since the early 1990s we have chose to tolerate child poverty of significant levels and duration; reducing child poverty has not been a high priority."

Claim eight: Reducing or even eliminating child poverty is relatively easy.

While Government policies have a direct impact on child poverty levels, things like cutting spending in other areas to find the money to pay for it, or lifting taxes are not easy. And, child poverty is not solely about a lack of financial resources. Child poverty continues to exist in countries with comprehensive and relatively generous welfare states, the authors say.

Claim nine: Increasing incomes for the poor won't solve child poverty

"There is no evidence that the majority of poor families are grossly incompetent or wasteful", the academics say. But it is true that providing money alone won't always be the most cost-effective way of achieving outcomes like getting adults into work. "The most recent international evidence suggests that increasing the income level of poor families can certainly generate better outcomes for their children. This is particularly the case if the income boost occurs when the children are young." And, they say: "The claim that "throwing more money at the problem doesn't help" is unfounded."

 Sadly, socialists are skeptical of any lasting long-term success being achieved by capitalist reforms. Under the budget, the government has vowed to boost welfare by NZ$790 million (US$578 million) over the next four years. Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP), which says the government's plan to increase welfare to families with children at the expense of requiring new parents to return to work earlier is “meaningless.” “The promise of (NZ)$25 (US$18) a week extra for beneficiaries with children sounds good, but is too little, too late,” AAAP's Sue Bradford stated.

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