Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why John Key is wrong about child poverty

This blog was written before the election. Nothing has changed. 

I have just gotten off the phone after talking to a young mother who I am hoping to interview for a research project. We have already had to defer the interview once because two of her “mini-humans” had the ‘flu, and this morning we had to defer again because her twins had gotten sick, too.

I stressed that I would very much like to talk to her and suggested Monday if the children were well enough. She said make it Monday and I’ll lock the kids in a room. To which I responded no but I would bring them a bag of mandarins so they could sit and eat those; a suggestion to which this Mum said “oh, thank you” in a tone of voice that suggested a bag of mandarins was like gold. 

It’s not. It’s a bag of mandarins that cost five bucks. But it got me thinking about Prime Minister John Key’s response (available here) to the release of Child Poverty Action Group’s latest report. Mr Key is sanguine about child poverty: yes, of course National want to look like they’re doing something about it, and will even make the right noises. But children growing up in households where fresh fruit is a novelty is not something they really want to spend too much time on. Poor people are icky and embarrassing and it’s much easier to just wage an ideological crusade against cardboard cutout sole parents.

Under National’s watch inequality has, at best, flatlined. But crucially, hidden away (see pp. 135-137) in the latest Household Incomes report from the Ministry of Social Development is data for the number of children living in households with incomes of less than 40% of the current median after housing costs. The percent of all children living in these straitened circumstances has increased from 11% in 2010 to 13% in 2013 – in absolute terms this is an increase of 20,000 children. Hand sanitiser and throat swabs will not reduce or eliminate the desperate poverty of some of these children. 

Mr Key’s response to being reminded of his government’s lack of action on child poverty was, in a nutshell, that parents should just get a job. It sounds plausible (if you’re poor and on a benefit, then get off the benefit!), although it’s really just a soundbite designed to appeal to the redneck talkback set. 

According to Mr Key “Over the last couple of years 30,000 young children have been moved out of poverty and that’s because their parents and caregivers have got jobs.” Yet the government’s own data shows 20,000 children live in households that have gotten poorer. At the same time a concerted effort by Work and Income to cut sole parents off benefits has seen the number of these beneficiaries plummet (although some have moved to Jobseeker Allowance). So where does Mr Key get the 30,000 children from? And how does he know that they have moved out of poverty as a result of their parents moving into paid employment? 

He doesn’t, and nor do we (Ministry of Social Development do not have data on this). He is just speculating, and hoping he doesn’t get sprung. There is, however, a deeper and more troubling issue here. Even if parents are able to move into paid work, and if they earn sufficient money to move out of poverty, what is to be the fate of those who cannot? The thrust of National’s welfare reforms has been that if you can’t or won’t work, or attend pointless CV writing seminars, then you shouldn’t get anything (there’s exceptions for those on a Supported Living Payment). 

Photo stolen from https://www.facebook.com/cpagNZ

Consider the woman I talked to this morning. All I know is that she has four children, one of whom has a disability (the nature of which I have not yet established), including young twins. She has just spent a week caring for them because they are sick. How does that fit in with having a job? Having a disabled child, or being a disabled parent, presents a whole different set of challenges: a child may require constant care and attention; there may be medical bills that need to come from the weekly budget; there are probably additional transport costs; and sick parents who are in receipt of Jobseeker Allowance are required to be available for part-time work. If for some reason parents are unable to work, are we as a society happy to throw them and their children on the scrapheap because John Key thinks they should just get a job? And if, as Mr Key says, there is “no evidence” to demonstrate that a bit more money would help, how little money do we think households should have in order to survive? If Mr Key is comfortable that 135,000 children live in households with very low incomes, at what point does he – and his Minister for Social Development – become uncomfortable and do something about it? 

I strongly suspect, on the basis of previous interviews, that our Mum will tell me she has about $150-180 per week to cover all the household expenses for her and her children. No wonder she sounded grateful at the mention of receiving a bag of mandarins. The bigger question is how many other mothers can’t provide their children with fresh fruit, and why so many of us seem to think this is an acceptable state of affairs. Many of these mothers are unable to work, even though many are highly motivated to do so.

It is time this National government stopped blathering about being “absolutely committed” to doing something about child poverty and started actually doing something. I do not accept that a bag of mandarins for the children is a luxury, and none of us should accept the idea that an endless financial black hole should be the inevitable fate of parents who, for whatever reason, are unable to just get a job. New Zealanders are better than that. Or are we?