Our future prosperity depends on how we help the less fortunate now

With the future welfare and prosperity of our nation dependent on the effective education of our next generation, denying the reality of hardship or poverty in New Zealand is futile and self defeating.  

While official inflation is under control, housing costs have increased at twice the rate of wages and other incomes. With many families spending more than 60% of their income on rent or mortgage payments. Not enough remains for food and other essentials such as transport, clothing and health costs. Despite recent improvements in the economy the latest figures released by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, show there are still 305,000 (2 in 5) Kiwi kids living in hardship.  

No matter how poverty is defined, increasing numbers of our children belong to families who are poor by New Zealand standards. There are real concerns about the standard of nutrition these children receive, evidence they miss out on adequate health care, and are also not making the most of educational opportunities. Financial hardship places enormous pressure on family life and affects the emotional well-being of both the parents and the children, so they are often not able to make the best choices.

While some sideline critics are obsessed with questioning how hardship in New Zealand is measured and argue that it is all the fault of the parents, there are children going without who just wish they were equal with their peers.  When people compare conditions here to those in third world countries and say "that's where the real poverty is", they are effectively saying that because some countries are worse than New Zealand children who are deprived here should just be bloody grateful.

It is not a competition!! We are NOT a third world country and therefore we should not have children contracting third world illnesses, and unsure of where and when their next meal will come from. I am dismayed at the lack of compassion some people show towards struggling families and, worse still, to the children who certainly did not choose to be born into hardship. When did we become such a self-centred society that we no longer care for those amongst us in real need?  

Perpetuating the myth that the parents are entirely to blame suits the “deniers” because it enables them to justify doing nothing to help. I am weary of hearing people complain that “if you can't afford children you shouldn't have them”.  What should we then do with the children who are already here?  By denying them the basics we are consigning them to a life of underachievement. Are we really foolish enough to willingly let the cycle continue and increase?

Of course the vast majority of New Zealanders do care about the health and future of our next generation and that enables KidsCan to assist more than 100,000 children a year in more than 530 schools across the country.  I speak from first hand experience when I say that the majority of families who live in hardship are good people who do want the best for their children.

There can be nothing more soul destroying for a mother or father than not being able to adequately provide for their children.  I have come across many parents over the last ten years who regularly go hungry so that their children won't.

There are many people who also do want to work. Recently when we advertised for people to work in schools treating children for head lice over 300 applications were received. Interestingly the recent child poverty monitor report from the Children's Commission shows that almost 40% of children living in hardship have at least one parent working and 47% of children in hardship are from two parent families.

Like it or not providing families with more money is part of the answer to reducing hardship. We can stand on our soapboxes and tell them they just need to budget better. But the majority of the parents I meet could out budget me any day of the week. The simple fact is when you only have so much money, it only goes so far, end of story.

In the absence of a return to full employment and with a continuation of the current system of targeting of social services, the traditional belief that we can all get ahead if we work hard is now outdated.  I am heartened that the Government is increasing benefit rates this year and also continuing to support programmes like ours and other initiatives like breakfast programmes in schools.  Companies like The Warehouse are also leading the way by paying employees a 'living wage' and I would love to see others follow suit.

We all have a responsibility to ensure the children in our communities thrive and grow into fully contributing members of society. Our future productivity depends on these children who some would like to discard.

Enlightened self interest should lead us to more cautious consideration of the long term consequences of child poverty. With changing demographics and the aging of the baby boomer generation, in the future our current generation of schools children will be financially supporting a much larger number of older dependent retirees than younger working adults do today. The adults of the next generation will need to be skilled, confident, and employed if they are to help to provide the increased wealth that will be needed to support the New Zealand society of tomorrow.

 

Julie Chapman

CEO KidsCan Charitable Trust