Child poverty in Aotearoa

Facing up to the facts – and some of the heroes who are working on solutions.

There are those who’d have us believe there is no such thing as child poverty in New Zealand. Julie Chapman, co-founder and chief executive of KidsCan Charitable Trust, remembers one of many moments that convince her otherwise. “There was a boy at one of the Rotorua schools we work with who was speaking to his teacher when one of our KidsCan team was there.

The teacher asked him what he had for dinner last night and he said: “Red soup, Miss.” That makes you think of maybe a nice bowl of tomato soup and toast or something similar. “This, sadly, was not the case,” says Julie. “The red soup was the leftover water that the cocktail sausages had been boiled in the night before. It was all the family had to eat.”

Child poverty in New Zealand has recently come close to getting the attention it deserves. In August the government issued a damning report put together by more than a dozen top academics and business leaders.

It said that today one in four Kiwi kids live in households where incomes fall below recognised poverty thresholds, an increase of 14 percent since 1986. Some of this poverty only lasts for short periods, but some children spend their most formative years living in poverty, experiencing “significant material deprivation” along the way.

Defining poverty in New Zealand is a tricky business: clearly few of us experience the kind of absolute poverty you might find in sub-Saharan Africa. But according to one study, about 18 percent of Kiwis aged under 17 are likely to live in a home where their parents are forced to decide whether to pay the utility bills and put a substantial meal on the table – or keep the place warm and run a car. Meanwhile, their children are turning up at A&E with diseases typical of the developing world.

In bare statistical terms, child poverty affects those children living in households with less than 60 percent of the median income, or those households living on $480 a week: just under $25,000 a year after housing costs.

Jonathan Boston, professor of public policy at Victoria University, has pointed out that about 170,000 children, or 16 percent, are living in households that actually receive less than 50 percent of the median disposable household income, after housing costs. That is equivalent to $400 a week, or just over $20,000. This compares with about ten percent in a similar situation in Australia.

But clearly it’s not just about money. It’s also about opportunity, education and wellbeing. So while academics file papers and the government deliberates on how best to respond to the current public outcry, thankfully there are those outside of parliament who’ve just rolled their sleeves up and got stuck in.

The charity KidsCan was created in 2005 in a garage in the Auckland suburb of Greenhithe, after its co-founders Julie Chapman and Carl Sunderland were moved by media reports of New Zealand children going without the basics. An evaluation of 80 low-decile schools revealed that thousands of children were turning up to school cold, wet and hungry.

Today KidsCan supports the education of thousands of children in 218 low-decile schools throughout New Zealand by providing food, shoes, socks, fleece-lined All Blacks raincoats and basic hygiene items. KidsCan has received more than $600,000 worth of additional support in the wake of the recent interest in the issue.

“Child poverty is something that has always been with us, but it is getting worse,” says Julie. “Two years ago there were about 200,000 children living in poverty – now there are 70,000 more. It seems that the cost of living is now just too high for some people.” She welcomes the renewed publicity, and believes there is now a much broader acceptance and understanding of this as a real issue.

For KidsCan, the next step is to bring Government, business and charities together to implement a nationwide plan to feed an estimated 15,500 hungry children in decile one to four schools across the country. KidsCan is already feeding 4,500 of them.

“There are those parents who aren’t doing the best by their children, but there are also parents who are doing their best and are embarrassed that they can’t make ends meet,” says Julie. “The end result is the same, and that is a hungry child or a child that is deprived. If they are left like that, then they will not be able to do better in the long term than their families have. We have a duty to help them.”

Haven of Grace
In a moment of brilliant television reportage, a September episode of Campbell Live screened a jaw-dropping exposé of what decile one and decile ten schoolchildren have for lunch. A surprise spot check of two schools in Auckland revealed that while the decile ten kids tucked into sandwiches, fruit and other healthy food, the decile one children mostly had nothing at all, or at most a packet of chips and a can of fizzy.

A tragically popular knee-jerk reaction to images like this is to blame the parents. Public comment has included claims that low-income parents shouldn’t have so many children, or that their children are not worthy of support because the parents may waste money on drinking, gambling or other non-essentials.

These arguments betray an ignorance of the corrosive effect that living in a constant state of anxiety and depression can have on family life. It isn’t so easy to make good decisions if your life is entangled in the kind of stress, abuse, lack of opportunity, violence and addiction that frequently accompanies living on a low income. Perhaps it is also the dark side of the myth of egalitarianism common to post-colonial countries. Anyone can make it here in the land of equal opportunity, goes the line of reasoning – so if you don’t make it, it’s probably your fault.

Of course, childhood poverty is the painful proof that this is a myth: that the land of the long white cloud is not a land of equal opportunity after all. If we’re ever to realise our national dreams, we must face up to this reality, and do something about it.

The Haven of Grace has three homes that provide accommodation and support for pregnant teenagers and young mums, with up to eight parents and children staying for up to three months at a time, and hundreds more receiving some form of support each year.

Casey Fredericks and her husband Sam have been running The Haven of Grace since 2008. It’s a not-for-profit organisation that is working on gaining charitable status, but at the moment it receives no government support, relying instead on the efforts of a small team of volunteer fundraisers in the local community.

“It’s extremely hard to keep going,” says Casey. “We don’t pay anyone to work for us. Even though I do 100-hour weeks at times I don’t get paid a cent.”Casey believes the best way, long-term, to tackle the problems the Haven deals with, is through greater investment in education and health.

“Education is how children will have a chance of a better future,” she says. “So many people come to us with very simple ailments, but as they can’t afford to get them seen to, they just get worse and worse. And often if they can afford to see the doctor they then can’t afford the prescription.” Casey also advocates the development of a justice system that is more effective at dealing with issues like domestic violence – adding that this is by no means an issue limited to those who are poor. “If you have been a victim you can end up stuck in your own little world unable to handle things,” she explains. “That way you can end up in poverty. If we helped people earlier there would be fewer problems in the future.”

As for those who seek to blame those in poverty for their own problems, she has a simple answer. “I’d challenge anyone to work with us for a week and actually see the reality. There are the odd few who gamble their money away and have addictions; I am not going to say there aren’t. But there are a lot who are really struggling, really trying and not getting anywhere. Wages are so low in New Zealand, while food prices are so high. A lot of our families have a problem with paying for electricity. I know people who are living in poverty and are suffering from depression, because they are sick of being knocked back.”

Auckland City Mission
The Auckland City Mission has been helping out people since 1920. Today it’s a major operation, employing nearly 50 full-time staff, a dozen or so part-timers backed with relief staff, and a small army of volunteers.

The Mission provides health and social services to individuals and families who may be experiencing a temporary setback or a long-term problem that needs expert attention. It also regularly supplies food to more than 70 food banks and community groups across the region, distributing an estimated $2 million worth of food every year.

Auckland Missioner Diane Robertson has been with the organisation for 15 years, during which time she has seen some of the problems the mission deals with increase, including a growing number of those with work needing help alongside those without. “The biggest thing is a growing inequality in society,” she says. “It is people on low incomes, people relying on two, three or more jobs to get by and losing some of them. For some couples it has been one income paying the very high mortgage rates, relying on the other to buy the food and everything else. If one of them loses their job, they end up needing help from organisations like ours.”

Diane says over the last two years the Mission has also had to deal with an increasing number of people who have lost access to benefits they’d been relying on, due to changes in policies and rules.

“There are a lot of proposals about better housing, healthcare and education and I have no doubt we need all those,” she says. “But I think we need a huge structural change. The systems we have keep people in poverty, by making it incredibly difficult for them to access what they are entitled to. “There is an Edwardian type attitude that we don’t want to give out stuff and agencies are told you succeed when you deny people, so they put a lot of energy into doing that. I think there’s quite an attitude that we live in a country where there is plenty. I don’t know that there is a real understanding of what it means to be excluded and how hard it is to cope.”

Want to help?
All the organisations in this article accept volunteers, plushere are a few extras:

Big Brothers Big Sisters
Using a one-on-one buddy model, vulnerable young people aged 6-18 are matched with volunteer mentors. Volunteers develop friendships with their “little brother” or “little sister” by spending a few hours a month together. Whether playing board games, going for a walk or just hanging out, research shows mentoring programmes have a positive impact on children’s lives. www.bigbrothersbigsisters.org.nz

Search a nationwide database of volunteer jobs by region, type of position or organisation to find one-off or ongoing roles and help give back to your community. Part of Volunteering New Zealand.

Child Poverty Action Group
With the guiding principle that every child has the right to security, food, shelter, education and healthcare, this lobby group advocates on behalf of underprivileged kids. CPAG conducts research, provides resources, and suggests ways you can help without leaving your chair.

Every Child Counts
This organisation believes children need to be at the centre of policy formation and implementation. Every Child Counts are raising public awareness and promoting public policies to work towards improving the welfare of children in New Zealand.
–Natasha van der Laan

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