One-third of New Zealand children, or 300,000, now live below the poverty line – 45,000 more than a year ago. (Unicef’s definition of child poverty in New Zealand is children living in households who earn less than 60% of the median national income – NZ$28,000 a year, or NZ$550 a week.) Twice as many children now live below the poverty line than did in 1984. For a third of New Zealand children the dream of home ownership, stable employment and education is just that – a dream.
Many of New Zealand’s poorest children are now living in families with one or more parents in employment and still can’t get by or can’t make ends meet. “The consistent message from the government is that work is the route out of poverty, even though around 37% of children in poverty have two parents with two incomes,” said associate professor Michael Anthony O’Brien from the school of social work at Auckland University, who is also a member of the Child Poverty Action Group. “The government is doing as little as they can get away with … the most significant action they’ve taken is increasing the benefit by about $25 a week for beneficiaries with kids. That’s it – that’s the biggest thing they’ve done.”
“We have normalised child poverty as a society – that a certain level of need in a certain part of the population is somehow OK,” said Vivien Maidaborn, executive director of Unicef New Zealand. “The empathy Kiwis are famous for has hardened. Over the last 20 years we have increasingly blamed the people needing help for the problem. If you can’t afford your children to have breakfast, you’re a bad budgeter. If you aren’t working you’re lazy. But our subconscious beliefs about some people ‘deserving’ poverty because of poor life choices no longer apply in today’s environment. We have to ask ourselves as a society, are we really prepared to let our children grow up this way? When I meet my counterparts around the world they are deeply shocked to learn of such ingrained, desperate poverty in New Zealand,” said Maidaborn. “We have been very good at selling a brand New Zealand. And increasingly that brand is being exposed as a marketing ploy, not a deep systemic reality.”
While poor children don’t die of starvation in New Zealand, illnesses associated with chronic poverty are common, including third world rates of rheumatic fever (virtually unknown by doctors in comparable countries like Canada and the UK), and respiratory illnesses. Meals are irregular and nutritionally poor, consisting of meat pies, hot chips and 99c white bread. School attendance may be patchy or skipped entirely, and protective clothing and footwear for the harsh New Zealand climate is a luxury.
“Poor children in New Zealand don’t fully participate in life, they miss out on so many things that make life rich and meaningful. Like music, like sport, like a full education, like the expectation that they will grow up and find a job,” said Linda Murphy, a social worker with the Auckland City Mission. “The momentum in these young lives becomes about survival, nothing else.”
Hirini Kaa, an academic on the management committee for Child Poverty Action Group, and an Anglican pastor, explains, “It is interesting the world believes New Zealand to be an ideal country. But it’s more interesting that we also believe that myth about ourselves.”
The urban slum of South Auckland is where the houses are wooden, damp and mouldy and often hold in excess of 10 people. Young children walk the streets in mid-winter with no shoes and gummy eyes. Polluted streams and rubbish-strewn parks.
“Child poverty has always been here – especially among Maori and Pacific populations – but it wasn’t until homeless people started interrupting middle-class voters having coffee in central Auckland that the government decided to ‘tackle’ it.” said Kaa. “If it’s segregated in South Auckland, fine. If it’s interrupting my latte asking me for money, we have a problem.” Although child poverty is most visible in the major cities, Kaa says he has relatives in the isolated regions of the East Cape and Northland who are going without many basics – including electricity. “The level of intergenerational, ingrained child poverty has reached a point that it is challenging the idea New Zealand has of itself as an egalitarian nation; the myth that we are god’s own country.”
Darrin Hodgetts, a professor of societal psychology at Massey University and an expert on poverty in New Zealand, said the government’s stance that jobs would lead poor families out of poverty was nothing more than propaganda. We have to stop blaming the poor for being poor,” he said. “The myth that these families are somehow inherently dysfunctional and they can’t look after their kids. That is not true. That children are failing because their families are bad. It is not true. The state is abusive, the welfare system is abusive, and after decades of this many people can’t cope.”
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