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Call for churches to address blight of child poverty

By Joanna Davis

We have long treasured New Zealand as a great place to raise kids but the statistics tell a different story: three out of ten New Zealand children live in poverty and child poverty is growing.

A UNICEF report describes the medium and long-term effects on children growing up poor. They’re more likely to have learning difficulties, drop out of school, resort to drugs, commit crimes and be out of work.

In New Zealand family poverty is very much tied to poor health. GPs and social agencies report seeing the recurrence of ‘Third world’ diseases such as TB, cellulitis and meningitis. These are particularly prevalent in places such as South Auckland and Northland where overcrowding is a problem.

New Zealand’s first Commissioner for Children Dr Ian Hassall says children living in poverty “grow up excluded from the ordinary life of the nation. They don’t take holidays, don’t take part in school events. At the extreme end, of course, they have difficulty getting enough to eat.”

Ian says this sense of exclusion and disillusionment means that children grow up without a stake in society and feel no responsibility towards it as adults. He sees this as an area where the churches can help foster a sense of belonging, “particularly for young people who are establishing patterns for what their life is to be”.

The church, he says, has an obligation to speak out against social injustice and to stand up for principals and standards.

Methodist missions throughout New Zealand work with families and children who suffer poverty. Auckland Methodist Mission superintendent Rev Keith Taylor has seen a massive increase in demand for services in the last five years.

Keith cautions against believing the problem is limited to certain areas and instead attributes an overall increase in childhood deprivation to a growing gap between the rich and poor. “More and more people are dropping off the bottom,” he says.

Keith says congregations should make themselves aware of the need that exists within their own communities: “We have to be vigilant and see pockets of poverty as they’re starting to exist even in the so-called affluent suburbs. We’re starting to see the demise of the middle class. So many families are over-committed and the children suffer.”

In the Auckland area the growing level of poverty is tied to the housing boom. “We’re starting to see a significant rise in the rental market, which is crippling people.” Keith says families are also taking on mortgages which over-commit them and leave them without enough money for day-to-day basics.

Methodist missions provide a range of services for women and children. These include emergency meals and food parcels; drop-in centres that offer a safe environment, and foster care.

Methodist Mission Northern does individual advocacy with families and children and will set up a social policy group this year. The Missions intend to work with other social agencies to lobby for policy change to help struggling families.

A key advocate for children is the Child Poverty Action Group, a non-profit group made up of academics, health practitioners and others who want to highlight child poverty and promote public policies that address its causes.

One of the group’s major current focuses is on family support payments. Dr Susan St John, a senior lecturer in economics at Auckland University, is economics advisor to the Child Poverty Action Group. Susan says our family support system is woefully inadequate. Payments should be child-related (rather than means-tested), as is the case in the “much more generous systems in the UK and Australia.”

She says short-term thinking on the part of the government has meant “it’s been convenient to let these payments erode” and that the government has not to date produced a budget that is child-focused.

This year’s budget (to be announced May 27) will feature a future directions package aimed at low and middle income families. While details have not been released, Susan is sceptical about the scope of the package. “All they are doing is a bit of a catch-up. What we need is a regularly inflation-adjusted child-related payment.”

Susan believes churches can agitate and let government know it must do something about family support.

“Support for family incomes has been grossly negligent over the last 15 years. All our family assistance is highly targeted so that a huge middle group only qualifies for a token amount or misses out altogether.”

“If we support families correctly the church won’t be overburdened with more and more middle income people who don’t have enough basic income to survive on.”