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Chris Ford: Child Poverty Report Shows Fall Out From New Right Reforms Continues

Chris Ford
Chris Ford

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) Report into the economic and social status of children across thirty countries shows that the fall out from the New Right reforms of the 1980s and 1990s continues.

The report 'Doing Better For Our Children' shows that we have internationally higher than average rates of child poverty, child abuse, teenage pregnancy, youth suicide and poor health amongst our children and young people.

This report, issued after the mitigating impact of the previous Labour-led government's reforms of the last decade, shows that more needs to be done to tackle the underlying issues that produce these grim statistics.
While the Working for Families package, for example, assisted many low and middle-income working families with children, it did nothing to ease the burden of poverty in beneficiary-headed households.

Also the growing income gap within our communities has fostered a sense of social marginalisation and exclusion where poorer communities are becoming even more detached from their wider communities with the emergence of mere ghetto communities in places like South Auckland, Porirua, South Dunedin and Aranui (Christchurch).

As ever in ghetto communities, there has been an increase in the level of poverty, crime and preventable disease (e.g. meningitis) over the last two decades. All of these factors combined have sought to create a new and permanent underclass who are more likely to live in poverty, suffer from greater levels of personal and familial stress and therefore are slightly more inclined to engage in acts of violence or abuse, particularly towards children.

While nothing can and should ever excuse child poverty or abuse in any way, shape or form, the failure to address the lack of education, training, employment, housing and community development opportunities in these areas should be a source of national shame. After all, 25 or so years ago, many of these marginalised communities, the likes of the Porirua's, Patea's, Kaingaroa's and Mangere's of this world were poor but still proud as most of their people had jobs to go to which gave them not only a steady income but a sense of connection with not only their immediate community but the wider world outside.

After 1984, many of the people in these communities, mainly Maori, Pacific Islanders or working class Pakeha lost their jobs and with them their sense of identity and self-esteem. Cuts in government programmes and social services only exacerbated the trend towards social disintegration and inequality which meant that families could no longer access livable wages and benefits, decent housing and family/whanau support for the care of children and tamariki as the lucky few moved away to find new jobs elsewhere.

Due to this growth in community wide poverty in poorer areas (matched by growing affluence in wealthier areas) produced by the mass unemployment and social service cuts of the 1980s and 1990s, working class children sunk into deeper poverty and we now see the impact of that all around us in terms of increasing violence against children and young people, more ill health within children and increased rates of suicide amongst young people.

What is needed now is a deeply interventionist government (and one we don't currently have in the National Party). We need to mount a concerted attack on poverty through lifting the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour, raising benefit levels, making non-working families eligible for Working for Families tax credits and building decent, comfortable and affordable housing so that all children get the best start in life. We also need to invest in parenting education and support across the spectrum as well as in free health care and ongoing comprehensive health checks from pre-school age to senior secondary school level. We also need to regulate the number of gambling and liqour outlets that tend to target poorer communities as the best places to set up in. The anti-smacking law needs to stay in place as well to protect our children from violence and this should be backed up through effective parenting programmes run by organisations such as Barnados and Plunket.

Until we do this, we are doomed to see our children continue to languish at the bottom of the pile internationally.

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