Child health, wealth, happiness

Another week has brought another two sobering reports highlighting the impact poverty is having on the nation's children.

The Children's Social Health Monitor was launched in 2009 by a working group, with members from a range of organisations, to examine the effect the economic downturn is having on children.

The 2012 report, released this week, showed while there had been a drop in some health conditions more prevalent among children from poorer families, rates of other conditions linked to child poverty had risen, and from 2007 to 2011 there were an average of 36,409 hospital admissions for ''socioeconomically sensitive'' conditions in children each year.

University of Otago NZ Child and Youth Epidemiology Service director Dr Elizabeth Craig, who worked on the report, said New Zealand was getting used to a ''new norm'' of Third World diseases and the country needed to ''wake up'' and tackle child poverty if it wanted to improve the health of the country's most vulnerable children.

Statistics show one in four, or about 270,000, New Zealand children live in poverty, generally defined as a household living on less than 50% to 60% of the median wage, at a cost to the taxpayer of $6 billion to $8 billion.

The health monitor showed one in five children lived in a home in which a benefit was the main source of their family's income, and Dr Craig said benefit cuts made in 1991 had contributed to some of the increases in child health issues.

Areas of concern identified were the rise of skin infections, respiratory infections, rheumatic fever, rates of cot death or sudden unexpected death in infancy, and child deaths from assault - an average of eight children every year since 2000. The report showed hospital admission rates remained much higher for Pacific and Maori children.

Sadly, the report is another in a long line of such investigations. The most recent was in August, from an expert advisory group which included three University of Otago professors, tasked by Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills with finding solutions to the issue of child poverty. Following public feedback, that final report was presented this week to the Government by the commissioner.

It casts the country in poor light in terms of child poverty, and makes 78 recommendations to tackle the problem, including establishing a poverty measure, reintroducing a universal child payment for under-6s, requiring a warrant of fitness for rental properties and implementing a food-in-schools programme. Its authors have outlined both short and long-term strategies which they say would make a real difference, are affordable or could be implemented by reprioritising funds.

In August, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett was cagey about which recommendations might be adopted, and Prime Minister John Key dismissed as ''dopey'' the suggestion of reintroducing the universal child payment.

This week, Ms Bennett said the recommendations needed careful consideration, and while some had already been addressed, others could not be rolled out quickly. She reiterated the Government would not support a universal child payment.

Health Minister Tony Ryall said of the latest health monitor that almost a third of government spending - about $23 billion - went on social security and welfare and the Government had introduced or extended initiatives such free doctors visits for under-6s and a $24 million rheumatic fever programme. But Mr Key was criticised by the Greens as being ''out of touch'' for blaming culture for overcrowded unhealthy accommodation rather than low incomes.

The debate will no doubt continue in the House about what has been done to address the interrelated problems of child poverty, health and education, and what can and should still be done. While costs are clearly an issue in these tight financial times, Dr Wills is right when he says: ''Child poverty costs us already. If we invest in young children now, not only will they benefit, but we will all benefit, in time.''

The pursuit of health, wealth and happiness are common goals for most adults, so it is more than reasonable children living in ''God's own'' should expect, and receive, the same from those charged with their care - at all levels.


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