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Even if you only read the headlines the cover story about child poverty in this week’s Listener is illuminating.

Even if you only read the headlines the cover story about child poverty in this week’s Listener[1] is illuminating. There are altogether four headlines on the cover and inside:

  • Born Poor,
  • New Zealand’s dilemma,
  • How far should the State go to end child poverty and
  • Our smallest citizens.

They represent most of the range of attitudes toward child poverty expressed daily now that we have taken the issue to heart in this country. I’d like to look at four discourses in more detail.

  1. The first goes something like this. “Some of our fellow citizens are living in unacceptable circumstances. How can we help them?”

This is the compassion/neighbourly argument. It is surrounded by certain related ideas. One is that it is, as implied by the ‘Born Poor’ headline, not the children’s fault. Another is that as a country we can afford to help. We are among the rich countries of the world. It seems particularly gross that we are a producer of abundant cheap nutritious food much of which we export to other countries. A third point is that New Zealand has a long history of helping poor children in other countries but is unable or unwilling to help its own.  

  1. The second discourse goes, “Welfare is a financial burden and moral hazard. How can we limit it?”

This represents an array of defensive arguments. At one extreme is denial of the existence of poverty or at least of poverty that is causing any real harm. Support for this position comes from criticism of the definition of poverty as being too inclusive and comparison with countries where children die of starvation.

Headlines, ‘New Zealand’s Dilemma’ and ‘How Far Should the State go to End Child Poverty’ reflect this view. This last headline in referring to the State also touches on the issue of private charity vs State support.

It is said that parents should take responsibility for their children. If they don’t, it is nobody else’s business. If parents are assisted in providing for their children it will undermine their incentive to take the necessary steps to earn a living and to limit their family size.

It is often assumed in this argument that a set of policies that provides the right mix of incentives and assistance will lead to social mobility, i.e. the poor lifting themselves out of poverty. However, country by country under a wide range of policies, inherited advantage and disadvantage remain a


[1] Du Fresne, K. (2014) Our smallest citizens. New Zealand Listener, September 6-12, p14-21

Talking about child poverty

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