Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Why we must end child poverty

Paul Krugman uses his New York Times column this week to highlight this piece in the Financial Times last Saturday:

Poverty in early childhood poisons the brain, the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston heard on Friday.

Neuroscientists said many children growing up in very poor families with low social status experience unhealthy levels of stress hormones, which impair their neural development. That effect is on top of any damage caused by inadequate nutrition and exposure to environmental toxins.

This damage can effectively lock in disadvantage for the rest of a child's life, making a mockery of meritocracy. Krugman's response is that this is a powerful reason for the United States to work harder to reduce poverty - an effort it has shamefully abandoned since the 60's. I'd say the same applies here in New Zealand.

New Zealand has an appalling rate of child poverty, ranking fourth worst in the OECD in 2001, with 16.3% of children living in households earning less than half the median equivalent household income. This isn't just a matter of international league tables, but of blighted lives and a denial of opportunity. Fortunately, the Working for Families package is expected to reduce this dramatically, from 14.7% (2005) to 4.3% (2008) (or 29% to 20.5% if you use a 60% poverty threshold, the other international standard). But while that's impressive, it's not enough: Working for Families has a significant gap around assistance to those on benefits, which means that we are effectively condemning the children of beneficiaries - the very people who need our help the most - to lives of poverty.

This is not something we can afford to do, either morally or economically. A society which randomly chose 4% (or worse, 20%) of its children and poisoned them until they were brain damaged would be condemned as wicked and wasteful. But that is effectively what our economic system is doing right here, right now. If we are to meet even minimal moral standards, and make our attempts at meritocracy even remotely meaningful, we must ensure that every child gets a decent start in life. And that means ending child poverty, today.