What are you prepared to sacrifice for our kids?

Sacrifice isn't a popular word, but the government green paper on vulnerable children poses some tough questions for all of us. For one, if we're to really help the worst off, are we prepared to stop judging them?

What price are we willing to pay to make children safer in this country? For all that the timing of the government's green paper conveniently saves National from having to come up with any hard policy until after the election, it does raise the unpopular question of sacrifice and asks what you - and me - are prepared to give up for the sake of tackling our hideous statistics.

I don't think there's any doubt now that having ten young children killed here every year and 20 percent of our kids living in poverty can be called anything other than hideous.

So there's a broad consensus that we need to act. But how? Often the implication that it's time to get tough on others and it's time for others to act. Me? I'm fine over here, ta.

The green paper, however, talks of sacrifice. Sir Peter Gluckman, who as the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor has had a hand in this paper, said on Q+A today: "What are the trade-offs the country's prepared to make for our kids to do better?"

(There's a valid argument that National is putting unnecessary cost constraints on itself; that the obvious sacrifice not being asked is for those with plenty to pay higher taxes and higher wages to those with less. And as Sue Bradford writes, this government's track record on poverty alleviation is, well, poor. But that's not the discussion I want to have here, because even with higher taxes and a booming economy, the job of government is always to prioritise.)

The green papers raises a few ideas.

  •  One, will we sacrifice some privacy so that government agencies can more effectively share information?
  • Two, will in the middle-class forego some government programmes so that money can be targeted at the poorest?
  • And three, will those without kids let those with kids pass them in the queue for social services?

Of these suggestions, which are wise? And which fair?

For me, privacy seems like a luxury compared to child safety, and the worst privacy abuses less troublesome than the worst outcomes of children falling between the cracks of government services.

The targeting question is much harder. On one level it's a no-brainer. As Thomas Jefferson said, "There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people". Gold, that.

The growing weight of evidence is that the middle classes are mostly pretty good at looking after their own, and the real bang for your tax buck comes from throwing money and services at the least of these - often and early.

But politically it's tough to sell because it can be so unfair to those who miss out.

Many are wary because it allows governments to put some inside the box and leave some out, when there's an argument that health, welfare and education is a fundamental right of all citizens, whatever their income (or parents' income). And there's the political consideration that universal schemes are thought to last longer and be less susceptible to being set up by one administration, only to be dumped by the next. Put simply, if everyone has some skin in the game, it's harder for a political party to take it off them without losing votes. You only have to look at Working for Families to understand that point.

Those are arguments that appeal more to those on the left. On the right, and in the minds of many who bother to write letters to the editor or send feedback into Q+A, for example, the reluctance to target stems from concerns about the undeserving poor.

Yes, they say, targeting makes sense, family is paramount, let's save the kids! But scratch even a little at that surface and the support slides markedly. They say 'why should my taxes go to the likes of them?', 'get tough on the bludgers and cut their benefits' and 'cut the DPB for all those who breed for cash'. An example of the political risk: Look at what happened when Helen Clark's first term government tried to target negative Maori statistics.

The reality is that you have to choose. You can't target the poorest and punish 'bludgers' at the same time, because in most cases they're the same people. Saving kids from abuse means spending money on people that you may not like terribly much.

The other political problem is that targeting is another way of saying 'taking money off the voting middle classes to give to the less-voting poor'. Gluckman works very hard not to be political, but what he is saying, for example, is that quality early childcare is vital for all kids, but that most middle class kids are going to get it with or without state funding. So rather than 20 hours free for all, let's have higher quality provision for some.

Cue those households living on $80,000 saying how expensive kids are and how hard they work for their money compared to those bloody beneficiaries. (And lord knows, even the so-called middle classes don't have a lot of coin left at the end of the week.) The hard question is whether they will accept less so that those they perceive as scumbags get more.

Finally, should someone with a child get into rehab ahead of a single person? That's an example of how government funding might be aimed at those with kids.

Single people will ask why they should go without. Those who choose not to have kids, and can argue that they are thus already taking fewer of society's finite resources, can rightly argue that it's not fair.

To which the rejoinder now is, so are you prepared for sacrifice what's fair for what works?

All of these questions presuppose a big change in thinking for many New Zealanders; we are by and large a judgmental lot. We tend to want people to earn our help. We want to know they're worthy.

Thing is, that means nothing to the kids who are doing without, getting hit or missing school. They don't care what you or I think of their parent(s). Or who's paying for their toast and shoes.

So can we pay perhaps the toughest price of all? That is, can we suspend judgment and simply meet the need?