The Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers (ANZASW) believes that the statistics and findings contained in the Child Poverty Monitor report released by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner this week should be a wake up call to anyone denying the reality of the crisis of deprivation experienced by children / tamariki in this country.
While the report reaffirms what we already know- that child poverty in Aotearoa is a serious problem requiring urgent action- it lays out the scale of the issue in instructive detail, emphasising the need for further efforts to address the matter in a comprehensive and wide-ranging way.
The fact that children / tamariki from the most deprived background are in general twice as likely to be hospitalised- for respiratory conditions three times as likely, for injuries arising from assault, neglect, or maltreatment ten times as likely- and are four times more likely to die, than their better off counterparts should prompt serious reflection on how the young continue to be failed in Aotearoa New Zealand.
In addition to this, as the report notes, the estimate that up to nearly 190,000 children / tamariki are not getting enough food, the most basic necessity of all, should concentrate minds in government and immediately provoke new thinking on how to address the unmet needs of present and future generations of young people. The implications of the fact that one-fifth of the the next generation of New Zealanders are held back by hunger at an early age is very significant indeed; an absence of action will surely have severe economic and social consequences downstream, which will be felt across society.
As social workers can attest, under-nutrition and heightened exposure to other health risks, including family violence, negatively impact the development of children in every way, increasing the likelihood that they will be unable to enjoy better living standards and escape from the cycle of poverty.
This is reflected in the report’s observation that “[e]thnic and socioeconomic disparities in educational attainment persist” for children / tamariki, an outcome that speaks to the drivers of inter-generational disadvantage, a phenomenon that hardens racial and class divides.
Nicola Atwool, ANZASW member and Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, Gender and Social Work at the University of Otago, told the Association that she believed that an “immediate practical response” to issues such as food poverty was required, including “raising the benefit to ensure that healthy nutrition is not beyond the budgets of those who are benefit dependent; ensuring non-stigmatising provision of food in schools; funding NGOs at a level that allows them to address food poverty in practical ways. Consultation with Kaupapa Māori services, Iwi and Pasifika organisations is urgently needed to ensure that they are in a position to support whānau encountering food insecurity.”
However, she added, this needs to be accompanied by “a wider conversation about the value we place on children in this country.”
As social workers, we know that the above statistics are a reflection of wider causes, structures formed by history, policy and economics, which reproduce privilege for some, and disadvantage for others.
The intractability of these issues was confirmed in the Salvation Army State of the Nation report released in February, which found that economic growth over the past ten years is not significantly improving the lives of the poorest in society.
We welcome the fact that the government has committed itself to tackling child poverty, reducing inequality and discrimination; yet while initiatives such as the families package, the child wellbeing strategy and the Child Poverty Reduction Bill are likely to have some impact on the matter, to be really effective they should be accompanied by heightened efforts to address systemic economic issues. This would necessarily involve exploring ways in which the benefits of economic growth could be more evenly distributed across society and a higher share of company profits delivered to workers through wages.
Commenting on the value of providing fair pay to workers, ANZASW member and PSA organiser Luis Arevalo said: “when you look what a company makes in profit, the fiscal costs in terms of a pay rise are usually minimal compared to the real costs in workplace culture and morale when staff are not on a living wage.”
“The cost of not giving someone a wage they can survive on means an increase in sick leave, stress and mental health issues, which then goes on to impact performance at work and, inevitably, also families,” he added.
Ian Hyslop, ANZASW member and Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Auckland University, reflected that bolder policy action is needed to address the problem of child poverty at its root. “The Child Poverty Reduction Bill is important, but it is too reliant on aspirational targets, rather than creating redistributive mechanisms that will guarantee a reduction in relative poverty.”
“As with the child wellbeing strategy, most of the frame of analysis seems to assume that the poor will always be with us, and that it is our duty to mitigate the worst effects of poverty rather than embrace a vision for a society that is free of it. The current coalition government is focused on delivering neoliberal capitalism with a human face when in fact a significant redistribution of wealth is required," he said.
“There’s still a focus on “fixing” the poor. No matter how evidence-based and science-informed interventions are, it is deceptive to focus on parenting children out of poverty. Let’s name the problem for what it is – economically embedded and structurally reproduced inequality - and set out to correct the unconscionable damage that neoliberal economics has inflicted upon impoverished families and to the fabric of our society,” he added.
Despite concerns outlined above, we are pleased to see that the rates of children / tamariki experiencing retributive violent physical abuse has roughly halved over the past ten years, a change that we attribute to efforts to awareness raising efforts and changes in the law. This demonstrates that policy reforms do have a measurable impact in protecting our children / tamariki young people.
Yet the government cannot enact change in isolation. To ensure that our young people do not continue to be failed, all of us have a duty to look out for the wellbeing of the children / tamariki / mokopuna in our communities from an early age.
As the Whakataukī (proverb) reminds us:
Ki te kore ngā pūtake e mākūkūngia,
e kore te rākau e tupu.
If the roots of the tree are not watered,
the tree will never grow.