Child poverty challenge issued

Russell Wills
Russell Wills
Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills is laying down a challenge to New Zealanders today - to shift support from older, middle-income families to give more to our youngest and poorest children.

Dr Wills, a Hawkes Bay paediatrician, is releasing the first of what he plans to be an annual update on trends in child poverty and poverty-related illnesses such as breathing difficulties and skin infections.

The update shows that child poverty roughly doubled in the early 1990s and has not come down much since, and that the rate of child hospitalisations with poverty-related illnesses rose and fell in parallel with poverty and has risen again since the global recession hit in 2007 to a record high last year.

The strongest increases in the past 12 years have been in asthma and bronchiolitis, which mainly affects babies. Dr Wills said the poorest tenth of infants were 10 times more likely than the richest tenth to be hospitalised with bronchiolitis.

"Any paediatrician in the country will tell you that the bulk of our work is with very poor children who are preschoolers admitted with diseases of poverty, in particular chest and skin infections," he said.

"It's not just a matter of income poverty. What matters is children in very poor families in crowded, cold and damp houses. There is an income issue, there is a housing supply issue and there is a housing quality issue."

An expert group appointed by Dr Wills last year made 78 recommendations, starting with targets to reduce child poverty, a plan for how to reduce it, and annual monitoring of five official poverty measures.

The Government has picked up some recommendations, such as a housing quality "warrant of fitness"initially for state houses. But it refused to adopt official poverty measures or targets, so Dr Wills has used J R McKenzie Trust charitable funding and Otago University experts to monitor his own measures.

He said the goal was to inform the public about the extent of child poverty to build support for refocusing public spending on those most in need.

"A lot of the expert group recommendations were cost-neutral - taking the existing spending and investing it where it makes the most difference," he said.

"It means some people would lose entitlements and it would go particularly to children who are younger and poorer.

"Those are win-lose political choices and no matter who is in power they will only occur if there is a very strong public understanding and support for those changes."

The expert group recommended first raising the maximum family tax credit for children under 15 from the current $92.73 a week to the same as the rate for children aged 16 and over, $101.98, and then gradually raising the tax credit further for children under 5.

Dr Wills' advocacy manager Donna Provoost said the money could be found by changing the income thresholds and abatement rates for the in-work tax credit, which currently gives tax credits to working families earning up to $89,500 with two children or $124,700 with four children.

"You could actually take some out of the in-work tax credit and put it into the family tax credit and put more money into the younger children. That alone would have a huge impact," she said.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said the Government already measured child poverty.

"This monitor is based entirely on Ministry of Social Development data, but just repackaged in a different way," she said.

"I'm incredibly proud of this Government's record, we have prioritised children, particularly those most vulnerable and we're taking a thoughtful and strategic approach to tackling complex social issues."

The report has prompted calls for action among a number of agencies.

It showed it was time to act boldly on poverty issues, said Child Poverty Action Group's Professor Innes Asher.

"... these statistics show its ghastly face - how sick our children are - with many harmed forever by preventable diseases," she said.
"It is not just children and families who bear the cost of these illnesses through loss of health, education and work opportunities, but society as a whole, as we are paying for the care of children who should not be sick as well as the lost productivity of their parents."

The Asthma Foundation said "action needs to be taken now" to help prevent such poverty-related respiratory conditions in children, especially as New Zealand has one of the world's highest rates of asthma.

"We are asking the Government to improve incomes for all low-income families with children, to develop a housing strategy that will result in all children being well housed, and to improve access to primary health care for all New Zealanders," said chief executive Angela Francis.

"Some people may ask whether we can afford to do these things in tough economic times; the real question is, how can we not?"

Labour's children's spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern said the findings were a "critical call for action".

"Forty percent of children in poverty are living in a household where their parents are in work, but they aren't earning enough to get by," she said.
"Indifference isn't an option any more"

- By Simon Collins of the NZ Herald

You better function forever

First, you need to define function/dysfunction. A wealthy but violent home is dysfunctional. Then you have to assume the approved 'functionals' will remain so forever: no redundancy, job loss, severe illness, marital breakdown. You prefer the dysfunctional to not have large families, I am not sure if you prefer the functionals have more children. If so, that's called social engineering. Life is not so ordered or predictable that we can identify function/dysfunction as binary opposites.

Yes, I do equate poverty

Yes, I do equate poverty with dysfuctionality, I'm surrounded by it and see it every day, there is no way I cannot make that link.  I'm sure not every poverty stricken family is dysfunctional, but those that are get more support than those who are not.  


I thought the issue was poverty not family (dis)functionality the measurement of which boggles the mind. I'm assuming you're equating poverty with disfunctionality - pretty blunt claim really. I think what's telling is that this research was privately funded. Also love the way the government manages to congratulate themselves regardless of the evidence (primarily to the contrary)

Yes, I believe you are correct

Yes, I believe you are correct there skinhat.  I have 3 full time step kids, we live off my partner's (modest) income and part-time work that I can fit in around the kids, but because we don't beat the children and manage to make the doc and dentist appointments, we get no help.  Not a snowball's chance that ill be able to have my own kids, because we can't afford to.  $80 a month child support for 3 kids doesnt support much.  Where is the support for the functional low income families?

More resources for functional families

The problem could be that too much money is taken away from functional families and is given to dysfunctional families. This discourages functional families from having more children due to lack of resources while encouraging dysfunctional families to have more children. This creates a cycle of more poverty. Perhaps more should be done to encourage functional families to have more children.

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