Monday, July 25, 2011

Time to do something about child poverty

The Herald reports that more than 40,000 primary school children - almost 10% of the total - are going to school hungry every morning:

School principals say the number of pupils turning up for breakfast is increasing daily, despite the collapse of one of the two main breakfast programmes, a Red Cross scheme which ended this month after Countdown supermarkets withdrew their sponsorship.

A Herald investigation has found that at least 185 of New Zealand's 256 primary and intermediate schools in the poorest 10th of the nation (decile 1) give their children breakfast or other food during the day, on top of the Government's fruit in schools scheme.


This means the total number of children being fed each week is almost certainly more than 40,000 - nearly a fifth of the 229,400 children in decile 1 to 4 schools.

As tempting as it is to blame National for this, this has been a problem for years [PDF]. Benefits were cut to sub-starvation levels in 1991 to provide an "incentive", and have never been restored. While Working For Families helped the working poor, it deliberately excluded those on benefits, again to provide an "incentive" for work. The resulting underclass was largely ignored by Labour when they were in office - they were invisible, and nobody wanted to talk about poverty in the good times. But now there's a recession, exacerbated by National's "hands-off" approach to economic mismanagement, and the problem is now too big to ignore.

The Herald is pushing private charity as a solution - you can sponsor a child in South Auckland, like its the third world! While that will help in the short term, the idea is obscene. This is not a third-world country. We have a government, which isn't exactly broke - and it should be solving this. It's not just a question of being a decent country, one where no-one starves; there are solid, pragmatic reasons for eliminating child poverty which even the most heartless right-winger should accept. To point out the obvious, these kids are the next generation of New Zealanders. They are the citizens, workers, and taxpayers of tomorrow. But starving kids don't learn well, meaning they'll earn less - and contribute less - than they would if they were well-fed. If you're obsessed with economic statistics, then eliminating child poverty is a long-term way of improving them.

The current government will of course plead poverty, and try and divert the issue by heaping blame on the victims. But this isn't a question of the government not having the money; it is one of priorities. The government can choose to eliminate child poverty - or it can choose to continue National's tax cuts to the rich. And with an election coming up, I think its time our parties explained what their priorities are in this area.