Child Poverty and Injustice

“Safety and security don’t just happen; they are the result of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.” – Nelson Mandela.

Recently we attended the Edmund Rice “Advocacy in Aotearoa” Conference, where we had the chance to learn from some of New Zealand’s leading advocacy organisations (Edmund Rice Justice Trust Aotearoa NZ, Child Poverty Group, The NZ Refugee Council, Caritas Aotearoa NZ, JustSpeak, Generation Zero, Vinnies Youth Auckland and Amnesty International) and create valuable links with others that are committed to bringing about positive change. Following on from this enlightening event, I thought it interesting to examine the issue of child poverty in New Zealand, and its relationship to justice issues.

One organisation working tirelessly in the space of child poverty is the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG). CPAG was formed in 1994, and is an independent charity that assists in improving the conditions of children living in poverty in New Zealand. It seeks to educate the nation on the issue of child poverty, and advocate for the rights of children in New Zealand. CPAG works to produce evidence about the causes and effects of poverty on children and their families. It looks carefully at how government policies affect children.

CPAG publishes reports, makes submissions and conducts small-scale research projects to achieve its goals. CPAG believes,

“New Zealand’s high rate of child poverty is not the result of economic necessity, but is due to policy neglect and a flawed ideological emphasis on economic incentives”.

The Child Poverty Monitor currently shows about 285,000 New Zealand children are living in poverty, which means one in four children are suffering from parental income poverty. There is further evidence to show that levels of poverty have increased from 14% of the population in 1982, to a current rate of 27%.

We listened to Janfrie Wakim and Mike O’Brien share their experiences within CPAG and heard what they had learned over the past 20 years of advocating. Their talk highlighted the importance of raising community awareness to tackle the issue of child poverty in New Zealand. UNICEF discovered that New Zealand ranked third highest amongst what are defined as rich nations for its child maltreatment death rates. This is a grave concern, and New Zealand needs to establish and maintain a protective environment for our children.

As advocates for children and young adults in our society, it is our priority and responsibility to protect children from being victims of poverty. Rogers (2003) states that we need to focus our attention on the risk factors within services and programs as well as whole-government initiatives. In the same way, we have the responsibility to assist children and families who are prone towards poverty as this disadvantage could continue into adulthood (Gornick & Jantii, 2009). Statistics NZ report that the cost of child poverty creates a butterfly effect by affecting not only the children and families living in poor situations but also the society having to bear a dividend of the costs (p. 6).

Child poverty is dynamic and the causes are multiple and varied. While some children experience only a brief period of poverty during their childhood, others experience repeated periods and live in poverty for years. Different pathways can lead families into and out of poverty (Ballantyne et al,. 2004). Families living in poverty often face multiple challenges, often with cumulative effects. Low household income is a major cause of child poverty and is the result of a combination of factors. These include labour market conditions, low skill levels or limited expertise, social and health issues, housing costs, and government policies and spending priorities. Low household income in New Zealand is frequently caused by unemployment, low pay or insecure employment.

Lower educational achievement also contributes to child poverty. Education is a major route out of poverty, but currently in New Zealand there is a strong pattern of poorer educational achievement by children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. This is shown in lower participation rates in early childhood education, lower levels of skills assessed at entry to primary school, and lower rates of achievement during both compulsory and tertiary education. Child poverty research indicates that social and health issues can lead to children living in poverty. Risk factors include parental separation leading to sole-parenthood; being born to a teen parent; families with a member with a chronic physical or mental health problem or a disability; families with debt problems or gambling problems; drug and alcohol abuse; having a parent in prison; family violence, and specific issues (i.e. language barriers) faced by refugee and migrant families.

According to a website based on information provided by New Zealand Doctors, long-term child poverty, as an issue, intersects with many of the challenges we face in our justice sector. John Pearce, who wrote a reporton estimating the national costs of child poverty in New Zealand, stated that children who grow up in poverty are more likely to participate in crime, incurring costs for our criminal justice system (p. 4).  It also informs us that poverty can lead to an increased risk of being a perpetrator of crime and anti-social behaviour.  CPAG suggest that eliminating poverty would reduce youth crime by 23% (p.199). However, it is not a direct link.  Being involved in criminal activity whilst young has been shown to have a negative impact on later life chances. Young offenders are less likely to achieve educationally, their employment prospects are lower and young women are more likely to have teenage birth (Ministry of Justice, 2006).  Furthermore, the children of young offenders are more likely to live in poverty themselves, reinforcing the ‘cycle of poverty’.  From an economic perspective, reducing child poverty is a fiscal investment which produces a higher GDP, reduces expenditure on crime and healthcare and lowers the costs borne by victims of crime and those in poor health (Boston, 2013).

UNICEF recently released a report in which 35 OECD countries were measured according to the amount of families that lived below the poverty line, defined as the amount of households receiving less than 50% of the national median disposable household income. In this study, New Zealand ranked 20th out of the 35 countries, meaning we had more households living below this poverty line than 19 other countries (p. 10). This suggests that, compared to other OECD countries, New Zealand is failing to provide for the needs of children living in poverty. In reviewing the data, UNICEF report that “work done by New Zealand’s Ministry of Social Development in 2008 show that children in New Zealand have high rates of deprivation – 18% against 15% in the UK and 14% in Ireland.” New Zealand’s measurements show that there is much progress yet to be made on the wellbeing of our young citizens.  The report states that the costs of not safeguarding child wellbeing is a burden to the whole of society.  As Executive Director of UNICEF in New Zealand Dennis McKinlay argues,

“New Zealand spends $US14,600 ($NZ17,500) per child whilst, in comparison, Scandinavian countries spend $US50,000 per child under six.”

The stark reality is that poor outcomes for children are costing New Zealand billions of dollars per year in areas such as health, welfare services and the criminal justice system.

A nationwide poll conducted between July and August 2014 found that one-fifth of New Zealand voters considered poverty to be the most important election issue – ranking it the number one election concern for voters surveyed. It is up to us to let the parties know that this is a priority.  We as young adults are natural advocates for children as we understand what it is like to be silenced.  Child poverty is not going to be solved overnight, or even in the next couple of years.  There is not one solution for this matter.  Nor is this a task for one political party to battle.  There should be a cross-party agreement, a common goal of eradicating child poverty.  The country needs long-term situations, rather than having the situation change every three years depending on who is in power.  We must act now.

“Many things we need can wait.  The child cannot.  Now is the time his bones are formed, his mind developed.  To him we cannot say tomorrow, his name is today.” – Gabriela Mistral

Further reading:

Boston, J. (2013). The challenge of securing durable reduction in child poverty in New Zealand. Policy Quarterly9(2), 3-11.

Pearce, J. (2011). An estimate of the national cost of child poverty in New Zealand. ANALYTICA.

By Stacia Kitt

This is part of a series of blogs written by JustSpeak interns about the relationships they are developing with other community organisations interested in social justice.