Child poverty symptom not problem

Child poverty sounds much worse than poverty by itself.

Children are rarely in a position to help themselves, therefore alleviating their poverty requires the help of others. Most of those focussing on child poverty think that means the government in general and publicly funded welfare in particular.

However, there is little if any real child poverty in New Zealand.

This isn’t a third world country where large numbers of children have lost or been abandoned by their parents.

Most if not all children living in poverty in New Zealand are under the care, however adequate or not that might be, of adults. Most, if not all,  of those adults are receiving benefits or tax relief which takes into account they have children.

The term child poverty is being used more in New Zealand but it is a slogan that identifies a symptom not the problem.

The problem is poverty in general and it has more than one definition and many causes.

One definitionn of  poverty, particularly popular among the political left, is receivving less than  60% of the median income. That is a measure of inequality rather than poverty

Dragging the wealthy down would reduce inequality but would not address the problems of real poverty.

A more useful definition is the World Bank’s which is whether households or individuals have enough resources or abilities today to meet their needs.

That some – and any is too many –  children in New Zealand are ill-nourished, poorly clothed and housed, have inadequate hygiene and ill-health is not always because their parents have low incomes.

Other causes include poor management of the money they do have, poor literacy and numeracy, drug, alcohol and gambling addictions, other physical and mental health problems and debt.

Many of these problems are inter-generational and they won’t be solved by focussing on child poverty.

This is not the children’s fault and they almost certainly suffer most from it.

The challenge is to find a way to ensure children have what they need without enabling those charged with caring for them to abdicate further from their responsibility to do so.

Another challenge is to increase economic growth because lack of national wealth is also part of the problem.

21 Responses to Child poverty symptom not problem

  1. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics it may all come down to Hugs not drugs:

    “Rich” people may not be to blame for all the world’s ills. Whoda thunk.

  2. Northern says:

    Right on, Ele! Very well explained.

  3. Andrei says:

    Poverty isn’t about money and things its about the people in your life and your social relationships or lack of thereof.

    Socialism, a creed spawned in hell, but disguised with the sweet whispers of good intentions is at its heart is about destroying the relationships between people who then have to look to big Government to fill their needs rather than their own.

    And in an emotional wasteland of fractured and dysfunctional relationships people turn to alcohol and drugs to ease their pain and emptiness.

    We live in a cultural desert where our values and what we value are cheap baubles – where we murder our children so they wont interfere with our lifestyle and consign our grandmothers out of sight to old peoples homes where they are cared for or not depending on how much money they have saved.

  4. Dave Kennedy says:

    The median income in New Zealand is only $27,500 so 60% of that is only $16,500 or $317 a week. I can still remember when anyone working in a full time job could comfortably meet their needs or be able to support a family on a single income.

    We now have a large proportion of the population called the “working poor” who are often in full time work or working long hours in more than one casual job, yet still need financial support through a benefit, to make ends meet.

    While I think there is some truth in what you say, Ele, I also think many New Zealand workers are under-valued and poorly paid and for a country that is rich in resources and has only 4 million people the fact that 1/4 of our children live in compromised environments is unacceptable.

    The wealth our country generates is poorly shared and we are now one of the most unequal societies in the OECD. Our wealthy enjoy much lower tax rates than Australia and our poor our taxed more heavily. It costs us $2 billion in government revenue a year to support the tax cuts to the wealthy and when you consider that the majority of wealthy New Zealanders generate around 40% of their income through untaxed capital gains, many may actually be taxed at a lower rate than those at the bottom.

    Many of New Zealand’s most profitable businesses pay their workers at the minimum rate and if those same workers still need income support then tax payers are effectively subsidizing those wages unnecessarily. The majority of our largest companies saw an increase in profits of at least 20% over the last year Since the 1980s productivity has increased by over 50% but workers’ incomes have only increased by 16% in real terms. I would also suggest that the fact we have lower levels of productivity than other OECD countries is due, in part, to the limited benefit workers receive for increased productivity.

    It seems bizarre that while we have a growing community of poor we also had a large increase in spending on luxury items. Around $450 million was spent on new Bentley cars over 2010 and for the first time in New Zealand’s history Rolls Royce are opening a dealership here. It appears that over half of us have to survive on incomes less than $30,000 and have to constantly accept wage increases less than the rate of inflation, yet our top 10% have never had it better. While money alone isn’t the only answer it does appear that families who are financially secure tend to live in healthier homes, have healthy children who do better in school and are able to provide their children with opportunities and security that will make them more useful citizens in the future.

    Our “lack of national wealth” is more about the distribution of wealth.

  5. Andrei says:

    Point missed David Kennedy – it’s not what you have it is who you have that counts.


    A few months ago I am at the service station filling my car and chatting with the forecourt attendant – a lovely woman, perhaps old beyond her years.

    And in the course of the chit chat as I fill my car she reveals that she is paying for her grand daughter’s school camp and how expensive (relatively) that is and the pressure that has put upon her son, the little girl’s father, which is why she is going to front up with the money despite having diddly herself.

    Very striking to me

    You can “re distribute” the wealth from here to kingdom come but that will never provide a grandma who comes to the party when times need or even assure that the re-distributed dollars get spent on school camps rather than beer and skittles

  6. homepaddock says:

    Dave – where did you get that median income? has median weekly income by region from $1007 in Northland to $1400 in Wellington which would be around $50,000 a year. has median weekly income at $800 which would be about $40,000 a year.

    Income matters – higher incomes generally mean healthier homes and people and better opporutnities. But it’s not the only factor.

    Andrei – good point, family support – financial, practical and emotional, makes a difference.

  7. Dave Kennedy says:

    Andrei, I agree that the issue of child poverty is not a one answer problem and I know of many people who grew up poor but never considered themselves as such because they came from caring and supportive families who made much of little.

    On the other hand since the 1980s we have seen growing inequities of wealth in this country and the real value of wages has been in steady decline. The cost of housing and rentals has increased and fewer people own their own homes. The standard of our housing is poor compared to other OECD nations and third world health issues are becoming more common here. Many child illnesses now are due to over crowded homes that are poorly insulated.

    Having a low wage economy and poor distribution of wealth does have a sizable impact and if you talk to people issuing food parcels, they will tell you that they have had a huge increase in working, capable parents who have had to embarrassingly ask for support to feed their families. If you talk to budget advisors, who have been run off their feet with the demands of recent legislation, they will tell you the difficulties they have in advising those who genuinely do not earn enough to meet their basic commitments.

    There will always be an element of our society who do not budget well or have poor parenting skills, but as a teacher I am increasingly aware that young families are making up a larger proportion of those struggling economically and the majority are decent, hard working people who care about their kids. It is sad that some schools have discontinued camps because it is unaffordable for many of their parents while an affluent school I know of has a regular trip to the United States. When I was young in the 60s the experiences of less affluent children were not much different from the more affluent yet we now have urban communities where children’s experiences and educational support are hugely different and largely due to family incomes and differences in community affluence.

  8. Northern says:

    @ Dave K: while respecting your opinion I feel you’re not telling the whole story. In particular I regret you make no mention of the massive social contribution through the Working for Families scheme. A huge percentage of working families are getting – on top of their earned incomes – a tremendous subsidy from everyone else in society. And while you target the reduction in the top rate of income tax, you don’t acknowledge that a very high proportion of workers now pay only 17.5% income tax – including me. I for one am grateful that a couple of years ago the bottom tax band was substantially raised and the lowest rate itself reduced. It made a significant difference to my net income and I’m not going to show ingratitude by complaining about those who are earning more than me. Unless we go to communism – a failed doctrine if there ever was one – then of course there is going to be some income inequality. So what?

  9. Gravedodger says:

    As is normal Ele, you encapsulate much of the sensible and practicable on a very complex subject.
    So long as we think we can use “welfare” as a solution to problems such as the apparent insufficiency of resources for our children we are condemned to a continuing drift to the swamp of failure.

    Some magnificent parents can give their offspring all they need to achieve in becoming contributing members of society with minimal resources much welfare based, while others who have everything available in terms of resources fail miserably.

    Micheal Joseph Savage introduced cradle to grave welfare with the very best motivation and I would be very surprised if even he did not see the pitfalls that would befall those who found the whole scene more attractive than going to work every day, giving ones all for their children and reluctantly using welfare as it was originally envisioned, ie assistance as a last resort.

  10. Dave Kennedy says:

    Ele the median income from all sources was $529 per week between the 2009 and 2010 June quarters according to statistics NZ ( ) and that is the equivalent of $27.508 annually. This figure includes all incomes, whether beneficiaries or superannuants.

    The $40,000 you refer to is just based on wages and hourly rates and can misrepresent annual earnings as not all earners are able to work full time (I am happy to be corrected if you know otherwise).

    Those who work on the minimum wage are on $520 for a forty hour week ($27,040 per year) but the casualisation of jobs mean many workers do not have the ability to work a full week, but need to be available to do so.

    The net maximum income for the unemployment benefit is $201.40 per week and $288.47 for a sole parent. I think we have around 60,000 unemployed but I am concerned how little attention is given to those who are underemployed and seeking more work, this is a significant group and although I can’t find current numbers, could be as many as 70,000.

    This page on the website for The New Zealand Institute is worth reading as it discusses the importance of dealing with our income inequities:

  11. We have no concept whatsoever of what constitutes poverty. Poverty is the AIDS sufferer’s home I visited in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) where we were treated to a coffee ceremony by a gracious but poverty-stricken woman who lived with her soon-to-be-orphaned daughter in a “house” not much bigger than my bathroom. Poverty is the project in northern Addis where we visited a child we sponsor there. The NGO managing the child sponsorship on behalf of Child Fund oversees 1800 sponsorships in just one suburb (one sponsored child per family, so the true reach is probably nearer 10,000 people); they do an incredible job, but have double that number of children on the waiting list for sponsorship. Poverty is the people who sleep on median strips in Addis in the daytime, because it’s unsafe to sleep there at night, and they have nowhere else to go. Poverty was the eight and nine year old boys tending emaciated cattle in the drought-striken countryside; trying to earn a precious few birr for their family to survive, because that was more important than going to school.

    Sure; there’s a huge difference between New Zealand and Ethiopia. But no-one there had Sky, or flat-screens, or iPhones, and here’s a big difference; everyone there smiled. I guess that if you don’t know any better, you just make do and get on with it. But when you hear someone like Gareth Hughes suggest that broadband internet is a “basic human right”, you realise that we take a helluva lot for granted in this land of milk and honey in which we live.

  12. Dave Kennedy says:

    Northern, I agree that Working for Families has made a huge contribution and I did refer to the fact many families receive income support. My argument was regarding how much the state should be supporting incomes above received wages. It appears to me that wages have been kept deliberately low to improve profitability and many employers have the capacity to pay more yet have their wages subsidized by the state. Many smaller businesses do struggle but if the minimum wage increased then we would have a stronger domestic economy and small businesses would do better anyway.

  13. robertguyton says:

    “We have no concept whatsoever of what constitutes poverty. Poverty is … ”
    We have no concept, but you do, Inv2?
    Thank goodness you’re here!!

  14. And you accuse me of being “snipy and bitchy”?

    You’re a hypocrite Robert, but have a nice day anyway.

  15. Dave Kennedy says:

    Keeping Stock, I think my link to The New Zealand Institute is useful. The distinction between relative poverty and absolute poverty is important to understand and while our poorest children may not experience the poverty common in Africa or India we must surely have a bottom line in New Zealand, below which would be considered unacceptable. One of the most important determiners for an affluent nation’s ongoing economic success is education and although New Zealand has maintained an international ranking within the top four or five in the world, this may be difficult to maintain.

    New Zealand has one of the worst records in the OECD for child health and welfare and one of the areas surveyed is the ability of a child’s home to support their education. If a child comes from a home that lacks a computer nowadays they are often at a huge disadvantage, compared to their classmates, in having access to information or developing basic IT skills. My children have been very successful academically and my son received many awards for his achievements last year, I can catagorically say that if we didn’t have broadband at home he wouldn’t have achieved the same level of success.

    My concern is that if we become more tolerant of poverty and continue down the track of becoming an increasingly low wage economy than many of the trends we now see will continue. While the State Housing instigated by Michael Savage was of high quality many of our poor are actually living in housing that is of a poorer standard. We were once one of the most equitable nations in the world and now were are near the bottom of the OECD, we once had one of the best records for child health and safety and we are now one of the worst and we once valued parenting but now expect all parents to be out working well before children are old enough attend primary school (we have one of the highest percentages of working mothers in the OECD, around 65% of women with children under a year old are working). Working for families is now necessary to top up low incomes, schools providing breakfast is common and we are returning to providing school milk to rectify poor diets and the shocking condition of many children’s teeth.

  16. Andrei says:

    I think the joker in the pack that nobody is mentioning is that virtually all the kids living in poverty are not living with their biological father.

    In fact all the social evils that people wring their hands over concerning children usually have this factor.

    It’s a cultural problem – can’t be fixed by throwing money at it.

  17. Dave Kennedy says:

    Dangerous territory, Andrei! You are making huge assumptions about the causes of single parent families and their potential to provide good homes. It is also dangerous to assume that it is a cultural issue, we have high teenage pregnancy rates n New Zealand and poverty is a major factor in this. I think if you were implying higher rates of Maori or Pasifika people in these statistics I think you will find that those young people from affluent and educated Maori and Pacific Island homes are less likely to end up in this situation. The current government has also made it harder for young, single mothers to study and improve their qualifications and therefore trapping them into low paid jobs. The opportunities that MPs Paula Bennett and Metiria Turei had to study as young mothers no longer exists. It is not a case of throwing money at young mothers but targeting spending in certain areas can make a huge difference to outcomes, and shifting people out of poverty cycles. Money helps!

  18. Lindsay says:

    Without getting too complicated the 60 percent thershold Ele refers to is based on median HOUSEHOLD Income, not the INDIVIDUAL incomes Dave refers to.

  19. Andrei says:

    Dangerous territory, Andrei! You are making huge assumptions about the causes of single parent families and their potential to provide good homes. It is also dangerous to assume that it is a cultural issue, we have high teenage pregnancy rates n New Zealand and poverty is a major factor in this.

    Why are you in denial – take any negative social indicator and sole parenthood is highly correlated with it,

    Those we incarcerate 95% are from sole parent backgrounds, teenage pregnancy, truancy etc etc etc

    Doesn’t mean that sole parents can’t do a good job – our Prime Minister is living proof of that.

    You’re right about poverty being a major factor but it isn’t dollars and cents poverty, it is cultural poverty or even dare I say it, spiritual poverty that is the cause.

  20. Dave Kennedy says:

    Thanks for that information, Lindsay, I wasn’t sure how the 60 percent threshold was established but also wanted to emphasize how little most New Zealanders earn. It doesn’t change the fact that half of all income earners in this country earn $27,500 or less.

    Andrei, I wasn’t denying statistics regarding sole parent households, just questioning whether the major cause of poor sole parent outcomes was cultural or economic. I stand by my view that poverty of income is a major factor and money spent on supporting struggling sole parents with parenting skills and regular contact by a capable support person would make a major difference. Providing education opportunities for those who lack qualifications is important to lift them from the cycle of poverty.

    Celia Lashlie’s book “The Power of Mothers” is worth a read if we really want to change some of the horrendous cases of child abuse. Celia looks at some high profile cases and gets to the heart of the real issues and possible solutions. Improving how we operate as communities would obviously make a difference but we still need to fund properly qualified people in supporting roles and fund education opportunities.

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