Unfair treatment is undeserved
Why is there an ‘‘ undeserving poor’’?
Given how the Rugby World Cup is dominating the news agenda, it was either brave or foolhardy for the Child Poverty Action Group to release its child poverty report on the first working day after the World Cup opening ceremony.
The conclusions of the report are disturbing. One in five New Zealand children live in poverty, with effects on their health, educational achievement, and productivity – to the point where early and effective intervention could add $2 billion to $4b to the nation’s gross domestic product and up to $1b to New Zealand tax revenues.
Moreover, it says, the situation is being perpetuated by the policy emphasis on paid work as the only effective way out of poverty.
But during a recession, work opportunities compatible with good parenting practices are few and far between. Such an emphasis, the report concluded, was therefore bound to fail.
The reaction from Social Development Minister Paula Bennett was hardly her finest hour. At first, she declined to comment, saying she hadn’t read the report – although it had been released under embargo the day before, precisely to give the media and politicians time to read the executive summary at least.
When Bennett finally got around to commenting, she dismissed the report as a political document and a rehash of work the authors have done before.
Child poverty? Yawn. She’d heard it all before.
Just as predictably, Labour leader Phil Goff sniped away at the Key Government’s reluctance to raise the minimum wage significantly, or to support early childcare education and adequate funding for childcare.
In addition, the Child Poverty Action Group report urged free childcare for all children under six and better funding for lower decile schools.
Yet the report’s main recommendation – that Working for Families tax credits should be made available to beneficiary families as well – is opposed by Labour and National alike. In fact, it was the Clark Government’s decision to offer its Working for Families programme only to those families in paid work that first rationalised a discrimination against beneficiary families, which the Key Government has been more than happy to perpetuate.
In that sense, Labour and National seem to be agreed about lending a helping hand only to the children of the ‘‘deserving poor’’ (in other words, where parents are in paid work) while denying the same assistance to the apparently undeserving children whose families rely on benefits as their main source of income.
This distinction – as the Child Poverty Action Group argues – is perpetuating extreme hardship among the very families most in need.
So long as Labour continues to present itself as the champion of only that segment of the poor who are in paid work, it can hardly be a convincing opponent of the next round of welfare reform that National is promising will be a hallmark of its second term.
Regardless, Labour does not seem willing to offer family tax credits to the taxpayers receiving a benefit. This makes little sense.
During boom times, beneficiary numbers decline sharply as people readily take up the work available.
Under current economic conditions, however, to insist on discriminating against beneficiary families seems wilfully blind to the hardship currently facing many New Zealand parents, and their innocent children.