This month we have heard two of the child poverty deniers’ favourite stories. One today from our Minister of Finance is that the poverty of some children included in child advocacy statistics is only relative and therefore not significant. The other a few weeks back from the Australian Prime Minister is that the poverty of some indigenous people is part of a chosen lifestyle. Neither story survives the least examination.
All poverty is relative. If a child’s nutrition, clothing and shelter is inadequate her increased risk of discomfort, illness, reduced life chances and death is measured by comparison with other children. The cutoff point at which the risk is unacceptable is what we call poverty. It depends on community standards.
In New Zealand we regard it as unacceptable that a child should not have weatherproof clothing and shoes in winter and that her house should be unheated and damp. These and other items are measures of deprivation. They are associated with greater risk of ill-health, underachievement and death. New Zealand research has established levels of deprivation among New Zealand children and they have been found empirically to approximate to the more readily available and commonly used poverty measure which is based on household income.
So, in short, household income is a reasonable proxy for deprivation which is in turn a reasonable proxy for risk of harm. Use of the word ‘relative’ in relation to poverty is more-or-less meaningless although it has a powerful sedative effect when included in the deniers’ story. If you are a New Zealand child who has contracted fatal pneumonia because of poor living conditions, the result of your poverty is just the same as if you had starved to death during a famine in some third world country. Of course there is a risk of ill-health and death no matter what your household income. The question is, ‘What is an acceptable degree of risk in New Zealand?’. Much work has gone into establishing where New Zealanders draw the line. It cannot be dismissed for political convenience.
The second story of poverty by choice is equally hollow. It has to be asked what choice these indigenous communities have really had? Some within the communities may say out of pride or lack of alternative experience that they wish to live this way but how do they know unless they have had the opportunity to take on a different kind of life? Having the opportunity to feed, clothe and shelter your children and reduce their risk of illness does not have to come with abandonment of culture.
Success, whether measured by accumulation of wealth, educational and occupational advancement or by community cohesion, self-reliance, a measure of comfort and hope for the future is not in their hands without resources that are meaningful in the modern world.
A third story that combines elements of ‘relative poverty’ and ‘poverty-by-choice’ is the ‘shut-up-and-be-grateful’ narrative. It’s a variant of the ‘eat-up-your-greens-there-are-children-starving-in-Africa’ story that some of us heard from our parents when we were little. New Zealand children living below the poverty line are said to be better off in aggregate than children in other countries or in days gone by. That is undoubtedly true but why should we measure our children’s well-being using these comparisons when we have a better standard which is achievable within this country’s resources?