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Why I have trouble believing Andrew Little on child poverty

In an opinion piece for the Spinoff yesterday, the Labour leader said his party will work to ‘eradicate’ child poverty. Janet McAllister explains why she’s raising a sceptical eyebrow.

When it comes to cutting the granite rock of child poverty, it takes a lot more than a plastic pair of pinking snips. These are the reasons that Andrew Little hasn’t (yet) convinced me he’s serious about ensuring poor kids can eat and stuff.

He didn’t mention money

Families are poor because they don’t have enough money. It’s not because somehow, randomly, this generation is more financially feckless than any other. The gaps between rich and poor are growing so fast even the OECD, not the most rabidly pinko outfit, is telling us we need to redistribute more wealth.

One reason families don’t have enough money is because family welfare hasn’t kept pace with other sources of income. For example, here’s a graph from the Ministry of Social Development, showing average household earnings rising on a lovely steady slope for the past 30 years while sole parent support (the benefit formerly known as the DPB) and other benefits got cut in Ruth Richardson’s “Mother of All Budgets” era and have mostly been flatlining since then.

Income-tested benefits (plus Family Tax Credit, FTC) and average earnings in real terms for selected household types 1980-2013:

Source: Perry B, New Zealand Ministry of Social Development. Household incomes in New Zealand trends in indicators of inequality and hardship 1982 to 2013. Ministry of Social Development, 2014.

Source: Perry B, New Zealand Ministry of Social Development. Household incomes in New Zealand trends in indicators of inequality and hardship 1982 to 2013. Ministry of Social Development, 2014.

The growing gap between the top line and the other lines is the worry. We can argue about the best mechanisms for getting money to the families, but let us be clear: we need to get more money to the families. School lunches won’t cut it.

He over-emphasised jobs ‘as the best route out of poverty’

This is a total steal from National; the current government has been saying this for years – and look where it’s got us.

It’s not possible for all parents to be in paid work. We need to accept that we will always have a goodly proportion of parents out of paid work – and therefore we need a family welfare safety net that is adequate, which we currently don’t have (see “He didn’t mention money”).

Jobs on their own aren’t sufficient. Little acknowledges that four out of every 10 children in poverty have parents who work, which shows that not all jobs are equal, and not all jobs are good for poor families. But tell him he’s dreaming if he thinks every parent will miraculously be offered the opportunity to take a decently-paid, secure job with child-appropriate scheduling and hours per week, and flexi-time.

Meanwhile, and most importantly, jobs – even good, secure ones – aren’t always the best route out of poverty for all families all the time – for example when kids are little or have health or behavioural issues. Parenting is already work, dammit; hard and important work. Combining parenting with paid jobs works well for some families, but not all. In particular, combining is often more difficult to do when you’re sole parenting because – let’s remind ourselves – you don’t have a partner with whom to share the childcare, housework, homework and child-nagging … Basically, Little writes as if he thinks The Spinoff’s new parents section is devoted to an occasional leisure activity, like tiddlywinks or bananagrams.

He directly links the government ‘buying Kiwi-made’ to alleviating child poverty, WTF?

Consumerist patriotism is neither necessary nor sufficient to alleviate child poverty – stop using poor kids as decoration to sell your “common sense” economic development policies. What about reinstating job training instead?

He didn’t talk of overturning any egregious benny-bashing measures

Like cutting the income of thousands of families in half (and sometimes completely) because they couldn’t get to a Work and Income appointment.

Like not giving the children of beneficiaries the same financial assistance as the children of non-beneficiaries (due to the in-work tax credit which links job incentives with the number of children you have, so bizarrely the more children you have the more financial encouragement you’re given to go to paid work).

Like Work and Income not telling people what they’re entitled to, and just generally being hostile and intimidating to the point where people are foregoing assistance they need.

These measures tend to affect the poorest of the poor and those in particularly chaotic circumstances, making their poverty even more desperate. What’s that other term for these people? Oh, that’s right: our most vulnerable.

Still, maybe Labour does believe in overturning these. They now believe in overturning legislation Labour itself introduced which docks 13,000 mothers’ sole parent support payments because they haven’t named their children’s fathers (often due to ex-partner intimidation).

But I don’t want to assume they’ll do the right thing.

Because history

Labour have thrown the kids under a bus before – they introduced some of the punitive measures listed above, and did little for poor children in their last term of office. It takes more than a clear grasp of the problem and some piecemeal measures before Labour’s attempt at a “we heart kids” brand looks anything other than cynical. But it’s not too late – Little mentions that Jacinda Ardern has a plan to reduce child poverty or a plan to get a plan or something. Great – bring it on. Show us the money.

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