Solutions to child poverty, easy as 1,2,3

Child poverty will be back on the radar this week, but will anything actually be done? If National's so determined to help the 1 in 6 in the education tail, what about the 1 in 5 without enough to make ends meet?

Poverty in New Zealand is getting worse. So the Ministry for Social Development found this past week.

There’s a degree to which, as Jesus Christ said, the poor will always be with us. But the trend had been improving in the past decade, what with low unemployment, Working for Families (especially for the working poor) and income-related rents on state houses. Then came the global financial crisis and recession. Opposition parties argue that that arrival of a National-led government has also undermined the gains being made.

Child poverty had been falling since 1994, but between 2009 and 2011 it's flatlined, with just over 1 in 5 kids living in poverty (defined as a household living on less than 60% of the median wage). The Every Child Counts campaign estimates that costs us over $6 billion a year as a nation, let alone the personal misery to those living it .

So it’s about time we started talking about child poverty again. This week it’ll be back on the agenda with the release of the Children’s Commissioner’s Expert Advisory Group (EAG) report on Tuesday. The experts are diverse, from the usual church and community groups who deal with the poor every day, but this time also including business leaders such as Phil O’Reilly of Business New Zealand.

For the reason alone, the report should demand some attention, drive some debate and put some pressure on National to take it seriously. While it’s not released until Tuesday, I’ve got a pretty clear idea of three major recommendations likely to be in there.

First, the group will call for a Warrant of Fitness for landlords. Given John Key has this weekend stressing the success of the Green-inspired home insulation scheme, but the disappointing uptake from landlords, it’s a timely bit of advice. A WOF on rental homes would ensure poor kids don’t grow up in leaky, cold and unhealthy homes. Really, a safe, warm house should be a basic requirement if you’re going to charge rent. Who can argue with that?

Second, it’ll call for meals to be provided more widely in schools. Some, such as Deborah Morris-Travers from Every Child Counts says that’s a no-brainer. Children need food if they’re to learn and deal with the social demands of school. Some are less keen, however, arguing it takes the onus off parents and puts more pressure on teachers to feed as well as teach our children.

But another study shows this could just be the thin end of the school wedge. Every Child Counts’ Netherlands study this week talked about schools becoming a community hub, with not only meals but before and after school care, nurses, social workers and clubs. It’s a bold prescription, but one that works overseas by helping working parents and keeping families connected to their schools.

Third, the EAG is expected to call for some form of long-term and universal state assistance for kids – maybe a Universal Child Benefit, or some money every week for every child born. Until 1991 we had such a thing – a Family Benefit. That went in the Bolger/Richardson years.

The argument is to look at seniors. They get universal super and we have one of the lowest senior poverty rates in the world. Don’t out kids deserve as good as their elders? But others say a universal benefit would spread the money too thin. Better to target more money at the poorest, say through the Working for Families in-work tax credit. Currently it only goes to those in work and beneficiaries – the poorest folk – miss out. The argument is that if you change the name it could became what it was always meant to be in the first place – a way to get money into the hands of those with kids but little cash.

Neither of those are likely to find favour with this government, however. Just last week Social Development Minister Paula Bennett told the House that New Zealand doesn’t have a strong enough economy to sustain a universal child benefit. She hoped one day it might.

But Morris-Travers turns that argument on its head, by looking to the Netherlands. On Q+A she said:

“They invest in their population, so that their population is healthy, educated and in turn that means they have a greater rate of productivity and a stronger economy than New Zealand.”

So which comes first, the chicken or the egg? The economy or the spending?

The stage is set for an interesting debate this week.