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Investment in our children

ARTICLE: 29 November 2015

The future welfare of our community and indeed our continued standing as a nation noted for fair play, initiative and hard work is inextricably linked to the way we support and raise our children. A positive start for every child should be our undisputed goal. Failure to provide a positive start for many of our children has cost and continues to cost the country dearly.

There have been several attempts to estimate the financial cost of allowing a large number of our  children to have a poor start in life. The problem is that such costs are difficult to compute with precision, depending on how much you allocate to lost and wasted potential and lower productivity - in addition to the more obvious health, educational and criminal justice costs. One study prepared by Infometrics in 2011 put it at 3% of Gross Domestic Product or approximately $6 billion annually. Another by the Analytica group, also in 2011, put it at 4.5% of GDP or approximately $8 billion. Business journalist Rod Oram notes that this actually negates the economic gains from 6 million cows in the dairy industry! This is a huge negative cost  factor. The debit side of the ledger is just as important as the credit side.  And however dismissive one might be about such assessments I don't believe that anyone can deny that these were sincere and genuine attempts to assess the overall costs to our community arising from a poor start in life for way too many of our children.

 There are considered to be approximately 260,000 New Zealand children living in households "below the poverty line", using the frequently accepted international measure of less than 60% of the country's median, as opposed to average, income. This measure of a poverty line is accordingly relative to the overall incomes and prosperity of the community as a whole, so to a degree it is also a measure of the income gap between rich and poor in any given society to which it is applied.  Now 260,000 children is more than five times a capacity crowd at Eden Park. We cannot afford a significant number, even 100,000, to be living in substantially deprived, even desperate circumstances. While the level of deprivation will vary in severity from family to family and from area to area, the costs of a poor start in life for any child can be huge; and not only for the child but also for the community. Many of our worst criminals had appallingly abused and neglected childhoods.

To bring all this into sharper focus American philosopher John Rawls suggested that we might usefully imagine ourselves in a conscious intelligent state before our own birth, but without any knowledge of the circumstances into which we are going to be born. We wouldn't know who our mother and father would be, what sort of parenting skills they might have, what our neighbours would be like, how the local schools would perform, what the local health services would be like or how the police and judicial systems might treat us.

In Aotearoa/New Zealand your conscious pre-birth state might tell you that you would have about a one in five chance of being born into poor or relatively deprived circumstances, with much less in the way of opportunity for stimulating development than the other four-fifths. You might also be conscious that if you are born poor the chances of your remaining poor are high. You are also aware that some "born poor" still make it to the top, usually blessed by good parenting or otherwise encouraged and supported by someone special. We quite rightly applaud those who do succeed from deprived circumstances but you are also aware that their success, however supported, leads to the comfortable belief that because they can do it everybody born into poor circumstances should equally well be able to do so. So if you strike that one in five chance society might not be greatly concerned about you.

You may well even be born to a mother who has come not only from a financially poor household but a dysfunctional one, from which she learnt no sound parenting skills with which to nurture you. She may, for one reason or another have more children than she can manage. But is that your fault? She may have had a succession of partners in the hope of finding someone to share life with. When you are born her current partner may have also come from a dysfunctional background, be addicted to alcohol or other drugs, have a criminal record and be angry, controlling, violent and abusive. But would that be your fault?

Finding yourself in these circumstances you may well ask: Will I be blamed for my mother's choices and circumstances? Will anybody remember that I didn't choose to whom I would be born? Will anybody care whether I get a positive start in life to break out of my parents' cycle of inter-generational problems and become a positive and constructive citizen? Or will such potential as I have be regarded as simply unimportant and expendable?

We actually need all our children, nurtured and educated to their full potential, in order to sustain the future work-force. We are not and have not for many years been sustaining a replacement birth rate, now referred to as the fertility rate. So economically every child is valuable, as well as being valuable in their own right. We can of course make up the numbers from immigration, but there are cultural adjustments and other issues with immigration that call for balance. In any event we cannot afford to consign any of our own children to the trash bin.  Children are not only children of their birth parents they are children of the community: our future adults.

There are many reasons why we haven't sufficiently addressed the situation. One is that children do not have an electoral voice. They need us. But we blame the adults and forget the children. We have also devalued sound parenting as unpaid work of considerable community value. The emphasis on paid work, even before children reach school age, can be highly detrimental to children. While independence of State support is a worthy aim, paid work is not a necessary component of good parenting, certainly for those with choice. It should be obligated only when it can be properly managed without detriment to the children. The most assured  route out of cycles of violence, abuse and dependency is a positive start in life for every child.

Three things are primarily required:

  • Early identification of vulnerable children. In the past we have become involved in the lives of children at significant risk when it is much too late: much more costly and much more difficult to assist.
  • Early parental support and assistance for the critical first two or three years of rapid formative brain development. We need to start where one should always start: at the beginning. In my experience most parents, particularly mothers, want to look after their own children and want to look after them well. Some, because of their own childhood or other circumstances, need much more support and assistance than others. Celia Lashlie's last recommendation was simple: look after and support the mothers. Children should be removed from their parents and whanau as a last resort. Fostering is extraordinarily difficult, successful fostering rare.
  • Simplify and adjust all child-related benefits such that they are fair and equitable as between children.

To the government's credit, much work has been done on the first two requirements, although much remains to be done. Little, however, has been done on the third requirement. It is now extremely difficult to provide for, let alone give children any extra developmental opportunities they may need, on either the current minimum wage or a domestic purposes benefit. The consequential stress imposed on many parents delimits their ability to parent well. Increasing governmental and regulatory requirements have only increased these stress levels.  Inadequate financial means is now the single greatest inhibitor of a positive start for every child.

While the 2015 budget acknowledged childhood poverty issues and adjusted some benefits, albeit without effect until 1 April 2016, these adjustments come nowhere near the overhaul required. It cannot be said: "Problem acknowledged, problem solved". A total review of all child related benefits is required to achieve both an overall simplification and, more importantly, equity as between children. Administrative savings should incidentally be substantial.

Such review needs to have as its starting point the basic costs of housing, feeding, providing health and dental care, access to pre-school education and support services for a child, with an allowance for the transport costs of doing so. Any resultant increases in the level of child support arising from such a review could well have the supplementary benefit of stimulating local business enterprises. 

I should add that from a purely economic perspective - and most things these days seem to be viewed from this perspective - we spend much more on the last three years of life, for little if any productive gain; and comparatively little on the first three years, from which there can be a hugely productive outcome. I am not, however, suggesting we spend less on needed or even desirable care of the elderly; but much of this expenditure is universal, regardless of need.

To conclude: The costs of failure to act are huge. In November 2011 the Analytica  group advised: "The economic cost of child poverty is large. When considered in relation to its social consequences, it may be more important to New Zealand's future than global warming". In December 2012 the Report of the Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty, convened by the Children's Commissioner, observed in its conclusion: "Unless a concerted effort is made now to reduce child poverty, the costs that it imposes today, both social and economic, are likely to be magnified in generations to come".

This is about nation-building: the sort of country we want Aotearoa/New Zealand to be and increasingly become: fair-minded and making the most of its resources, including all its children. But unless we demand action little is likely to be done. Governments are polls driven and tend to deal with issues of the day rather than the long-term future. Do we care enough about that future: the future we are bequeathing to our tamariki and mokopuna, our children and grandchildren? Or will we allow our rates of domestic violence, child abuse, child ill-health and imprisonment to  remain unacceptably high in international comparisons?

 The goal of a positive start for every child is achievable if we recognise its importance, support it, set our minds to it. We have so much going for us; we can make it so much more.


Dr Ian Hassall is a paediatrician and child advocate. He is a former Deputy Medical Director of Plunket and was New Zealand’s first Children’s Commissioner.

Investment in our children

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