Child poverty issues still need focus

Child poverty

Child poverty in New Zealand has been notably absent from the election debate, say four prominent public health analysts.

Jonathan Boston, John Kerr, Michael Baker and Russell Wills say that, although recent governments have successfully implemented a range of anti-poverty measures, child poverty barely figured during the 2023 election campaign.

“During the 2017 general election campaign, for instance, the National Party leader, Sir William English, and the Labour Party leader, Dame Jacinda Ardern, committed to significant and sustained reductions in child poverty,” they say.

However, this is not the case in the 2023 election.

“Worse, there is a risk that many low-income families will end up poorer, at least in relative terms, if they help fund tax cuts for middle-income earners,” say the analysts.

Professor Richie Poulton’s legacy

This change in policy direction would dishonour Professor Richie Poulton’s “remarkable legacy” they say.

Poukton, one of New Zealand’s most distinguished social scientists, died recently.

Many will remember his work – for several decades, he directed the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study (commonly known as the ‘Dunedin Study’).

In the light of Poulton’s legacy, Boston, Kerr, Baker and Wills have taken the opportunity to highlight the damaging impacts of child poverty.

They say governments must take effective policy measures to minimise such poverty and alleviate its effects.

The Dunedin Study

Boston, Kerr, Baker and Willis say the Dunedin Study’s contribution to understanding human health and development is extraordinary.

“Above all, it has highlighted how our early life experiences and environment affect the subsequent course of our lives.”

The lasting impact of child poverty

The most stark pattern emerging from the Study found people born into poverty are more likely to suffer hardship of various kinds throughout their lives.

These include lower income, less education and poorer health.

The more severe and/or prolonged the experience of childhood poverty, the greater the long-term effects.

“If we want to improve key indicators and dimensions of societal wellbeing, a goal supported by our political leaders, then the Dunedin Study offers a powerful and unequivocal message.”

The answer is to reduce childhood income-related poverty and material hardship.

The four note that, in his final interview for TVNZ’s “Sunday”, Poulton stressed this point.

Taking child poverty seriously

The subject of child poverty and how it might be reduced was almost completely absent during the 2023 election campaign.

Some recent policy initiatives will be repealed, the National Party indicated before the election.

These include indexing core welfare benefits to average wages rather than prices – this would help reduce child poverty rates.

“Indeed, the nation’s poorest families may well end up worse off, at least in relative terms, if they help fund tax cuts for middle-income earners” Boston, Kerr, Baker and Wills say.

The four analysts predict material hardship in low-income families may increase, as will the associated negative long-term effect.

Different policy choices are possible, they say.

They note that reducing child poverty needs robust evidence of the kind provided by the Dunedin Study.

It also needs a society that values such evidence and seeks a long, secure and rewarding life for all its citizens, whatever their gender, ethnicity or beliefs.

“Aotearoa New Zealand has yet to fully embrace such a culture,” they say.


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