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Lisa Owen interviews Professor Jonathan Boston

Lisa Owen interviews Professor Jonathan Boston and Children’s Commissioner Russell Wills


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Children’s Commissioner Russell Wills advocates restoring benefits in real terms to where they were a generation ago.

Wills: “So let’s restore it back to where it was when we were kids. I don’t think that’s unachievable.”

Prof Jonathan Boston agrees benefit system needs restructuring: “..people who are wholly dependent on the benefit now are almost a quarter worse off relative to other citizens who are in work than was the case a generation ago.”

Boston and Wills both say it’s “scandalous” how children are treated in NZ compared to retirees, Boston says the rate of childhood deprivation in NZ is about six times that of the elderly

Boston proposes raising the age of NZ Super eligibility to potentially age 70 and using the money to combat child poverty, “but we’ll need a lot more than that”

Boston says personally he would push for a universal child benefit for all children between ages of one and three.

Wills praises Government’s Budget announcements such as extending paid parental leave but “that’s not the same as having a plan and legislation and targets and accountabilities for children. And that’s what I think we need.”

Lisa Owen: Good morning Professor Boston. I’m wondering upwards potentially a quarter of a million New Zealand children live in poverty. Can you tell us what does that look like exactly?

Jonathan Boston: Well I think we need to recognise that there are two different ways of measuring poverty. One is on an income basis where we set a threshold and the children and families living below that threshold are deemed to be living in poverty. And then the other method is material deprivation, how many children are deprived of enough items of what most people would regard as being essential. Things like having a waterproof raincoat, sturdy pair of shoes, a separate bed, being able to go to the doctor when you need to, having friends around for your birthday party and that kind of thing. And a study done a few years ago indicated that of the children in the 10-percent of the poorest families, around 60-percent were missing out on at least three of twelve essential items. By comparison the children in the top 45-percent of households by income and living standards were missing out on none, in other words they were 0-percent compared with 60-percent on that threshold of three essential items.

Given that situation I’m wondering do we treat our children as well as we treat retirees in this country?

Oh absolutely not. No. With respect to those over 65, we have a multi-party accord negotiated some 20 years ago which sets an income floor which is tied to average wages. So we have essentially guaranteed all those aged 65-plus an adequate standard of living. And we know it’s broadly adequate because where as close to 20-percent of children are deprived on at least one measure of deprivation, only 3-percent of those aged 65 plus were deprived on that same measure. So the rate of childhood deprivation is roughly six times that of the elderly. And I think that’s scandalous.

Does that tell us that we need to pay a price here? Do we need to take from retirees and redirect some of that money to poor children?

No, I don’t think so. But we do need to do the same for our children and particularly our young children as we’ve done for our older citizens. Children are no less deserving than our older citizens. They’ve no less vulnerable indeed. Arguably they are no more vulnerable. But we haven’t put in place the same sort of policy package and sought to reach the same level of societal consensus for treating our children.

But in saying that you do support raising the age of eligibility for super don’t you?

I do but what I’m saying in that regard is that we would move the eligibility for a universal super say from 65 to 68 or even 70 but those who didn’t have other sources of income would still have a guaranteed income. It would be targeted.

So that money you would save doing that, keeping universal super but raising the age of eligibility, the money you would save from doing that, that money do you think should go into dealing with the issue of poverty?

My personal view would be yes, but we’ll need a lot more than that. If we were going to tackle child poverty seriously, then we’re going to need a billion dollars or more. And raising the age of eligibility for superannuation to say 68 won’t provide us with the necessary funds for that, however justifiable it is to raise that age level.

So that would give you a chunk of the money. But really, who’s going to go there? Who’s going to dare to go that? Because the reality is, isn’t it, that that’s unpalatable to a number of voters and so politicians will be steering well clear of it.

I think we need a national conversation about how we treat our children and I think we need to debate the principals that should guide public policy in this area and seek to try and reach a consensus across the parties on what is acceptable. I think a lot of people would agree at the moment that the current circumstances are unacceptable. So what we need to do is to have a very serious evidence-based, well informed discussion which draws on clear principals of justice and tries to set some clear framework for designing policies to minimise child poverty. And I think we can do that.

Isn’t the problem with that though, isn’t part of the problem with that is that older people, retirees, they get a vote. Poor children do not get a vote and we know from research that the parents of poor children are less likely to vote. So are they then in essence collateral damage in political terms?

Well it’s true that children are voiceless but you know most elderly people are grandparents. And surely they care for the wellbeing of their grandchildren. So we need parents and grandparents to be speaking out on behalf of our children. But we need to do this in a careful, reasoned, balanced, evidence-informed way. And as we have done for elderly people, set benchmarks and thresholds that will ensure a broad adequacy of income and living standards, you know, for all our children. And I believe that’s possible. It’s not completely beyond our capacity to afford. There are various ways in which we could, expenditure shift and raise additional revenue, and thereby grant our children the same kind of privileges that we grant our older citizens. And bear in mind –

Well hang on, your talking there, does your talking there about a universal benefit for all children, why? Why should all children?

Well my personal preference would be for a universal benefit for very young children, perhaps between the ages of one and three because what we know from a lot of evidence is that what happens in early childhood matters profoundly for later childhood and adulthood. If children have a good start in life that lays the foundations for a successful life and that’s good for society as a whole, not just for the individuals concerned. So I think there’s a case for a universal –

In your book you raise the issue about benefits, that in real terms they’ve gone down. Is it time now for us to pay more in benefits?

There’s no question in my mind that we need to restructure our benefit system. We need to understand that benefits were cut significantly in real terms 23 years ago. They haven’t been adjusted other than for prices for 23 years. In the meantime wages have gone up about 25 percent. So people who are wholly dependent on the benefit now are almost a quarter worse off relative to other citizens who are in work than was the case a generation ago. And we can’t –

So put them up you say. So put up the payment, raise the amount that you pay these people?

We’re going to have to have a serious national conversation about that. We can’t assume that people on the benefit are going to get poorer relative to the rest of society, forever. At some point we have to say we need to ensure that people who are dependent on the benefit, including children, are able to feel a sense of inclusion in society, they’re not excluded from participating in the sorts of things that most New Zealanders can enjoy. We need a country which is –

Speaking of inclusion, I just want to quickly ask you before we move on, you talk about children being powerless and poorer families being powerless, should we be lowering the voting age? Should 16 year olds get the right to vote?

Well we could. I don’t have a strong view one way or the other on that. But I don’t think lowering the voting age is going to change anything fundamentally. Austria has a 16 year old voting age, a number of other countries do but the evidence is that young people actually don’t vote in large numbers, only 40 percent of 18 to 30 year old voted in the last election. So changing the voting age isn’t going to change much however desirable it might be. What we need is a societal consensus that children matter, they’re our future, we need to invest in them, we need to care for them, and we need a good future for all our children, not just those who are fortunate enough to be born into families that are reasonably well off.

Thank you very much for joining us Professor Jonathan Boston.

Let’s now turn to Russell Wills, the Children’s Commissioner, thanks for joining me this morning. You heard Jonathan Boston there; he believes we don’t treat our children anywhere near as well as we treat our retirees. Do you agree?

Russell Wills: I do. The evidence is very clear for that. Jonathan made the case very well.

He says it’s scandalous, would you go that far?

Of course I do.

And what makes you say that?

I’m a paediatrician. And next weekend I’m going to be on call at Hastings Hospital. My weekend will be full of poor mostly Maori and Pacific preschool children with infectious diseases that our English registrars often haven’t even seen before. Now we see acute rheumatic fever. We see tuberculosis. We have admissions to intensive care with children with illnesses that should have been treated in primary care but they couldn’t afford to go. We just don’t see those kinds of issues in our elderly people and I think that’s a great shame.

He talked there about raising the age of super and redirecting some of that money. Is it time for our seniors to take a hit for the good of the younger generation?

I’m not an expert on retirement policy so I think you’re asking the wrong person. What I will say is that when I talk to parents and their friends, they all have grandchildren and they love their children. And when we take the time to explain to older people what life is like for our poorest children the overwhelming response that I get is they think that is a scandal and they would like to see more resources directed to those young children.

But these are tight financial times as you would appreciate; you have said previously the questions is: are we prepared to give up something for the vulnerable. So who is the ‘we’ that has to give up something?

It’s people like us Lisa. The fact is that we have large numbers of poor children in New Zealand who are missing out on things that our kids take for granted. So the kids that I see on the children’s ward often live in cold, damp, crowded houses. They often can’t afford to go to the GP. They commonly don’t have their own bed. They frequently all crowd around together in the living room to sleep.

I appreciate what you’re saying there but when you say it’s people like us, that’s a nebulous concept. Don’t we need to pin down where this money is going to come from? Isn’t super or capping or raising the age, isn’t that a place where we can get a certain lot of money?

I look at it a little bit differently. Let’s agree some principles. We would agree wouldn’t we that it is children’s right to have an adequate standard of living. Let’s agree what the standard of living is first. We also need to agree I think that our tax and benefit system are actually part of the same thing. And it’s not working. It’s way too complicated. People who have entitlements don’t get them. So we need to simplify it substantially. And what Jonathan and Simon have said is if we simplify that, if we start with what we’ve got now, just with the resources we have now and direct that to where it’s going to make the biggest difference, I think as taxpayers we’d agree that that is appropriate use of our taxpayers money. Then, when money becomes available we can increase that support. I think that’s hard to argue with.

So you’re talking about a universal payment to all children when they’re young and then what, In-work support after that? When would you cut it off?

So when your children are born, most parents are staying at home with those kids. So what we need is to invest in supporting our youngest children and supporting those parents to be at home with their children. And that’s what most of us do. When kids get a little bit older into toddlerhood, then what we need is to support for those parents to go back to work. And that’s why the benefit tax system needs to be seen as a single entity. So there’ll be an age that a society will need to agree. Personally I think that’s when free early childhood education, so 3, comes in. So I think we need a universal benefit for children when they’re youngest. And we have that already in many ways, we have paid parental leave for example.

But you heard Professor Boston saying there that basically our benefits are woefully inadequate.

They are.

So what do you think should happen with the level of payment?

We need to decide as a society what an adequate standard of living is for children. Not just to be fed, but to participate, particularly for our youngest kids because that’s when they’re most vulnerable. So what the science tells us is it’s about where it was when I was delivering Dad’s scripts around the poor part of Maraenui, back in the late 80s and 90s. So that’s roughly half as much again as it is now. So let’s restore it back to where it was when we were kids. I don’t think that’s unachievable.

In real terms, restore it back to where it was?

Yeah.

You want to make this an election year issue. So, what is your call then? Are you saying, show me a party that’s going to do that? Vote for a party that’s going to do that?

What I’ve said is no party is going to go there until there’s public support. That’s why shows like this are so important. No party is going to go there until all New Zealanders are going to stand up and say we think all children deserve an adequate standard of living. And I think we all agree that. Once we say that and the message is very clear then all politicians are going to say ‘ok we need party policies that are consistent with that’, and then they’ll go there.

Part of your job is to scrutinise how the governments are going, so what is your report card in terms of tackling of this problem?

I think a lot of the things the Government have done well, so for example in the last budget we saw an extension of paid parental leave, particularly to parents who weren’t previously eligible. So the poorest mums who were on part time or casual work, that was a really good thing. Early childhood education is growing, there’s more support for kids leaving state care and we saw free primary healthcare, including after hours, for under 13s. Those are all good things. They need to continue. But that’s not the same as having a plan and legislation and targets and accountabilities for children. And that’s what I think we need.

So to be clear, in election year you are calling for someone to raise benefits, restore them to the levels they were in the 70s?

What I’m saying is that we as a public need to say to all of our politicians we care about our kids, we believe that children deserve an adequate standard of living , we believe they have some basic rights that are not currently being met and we can afford them. It’s a choice.

Thank you so much for joining me this morning, Russell Wills


ends

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