Our world is built on words. Big words, little words, everyday words. Some words are acceptable, others are not. (This week, the British media published the list of English swear words in order of their unacceptability. One or two surprises along the way, maybe, but no real shocks at the top end.) Whatever the words, or however they are used, we cannot do without them.
But some words are more difficult than others. For the National Party, two words seem particularly troublesome, so much so that they seem unable to be uttered in polite company, or at least in public. One such word is “crisis” particularly when linked to the words “Auckland” and “housing”, or in the phrase “Auckland housing crisis”. This week, the word “poverty” as in the phrase “child poverty”, has joined the list.
The Children’s Commissioner is right to draw attention to the numbers of New Zealand children being brought up in circumstances over which they have no control, where they are suffering significant social, emotional and economic deprivation, which he terms poverty. The Government knows this too, which is why it is unashamedly shifting its policy mindset to put children at the centre through the establishment of the new Ministry for Vulnerable Children, although the name is seen as too stigmatising, and sticks in the craw of many. But it seems unable to bring itself to recognise these children’s circumstances as the poverty others see it to be.
In part, this is because of definition issues. There is no universally accepted single definition of poverty, so it becomes a little too easy to split straws over what is poverty, and what it not. But the semantics of the argument are irrelevant to those deprived children, and indulging in them is easily seen by everyone else as seeking to avoid the issue. It is not good enough.
An evidence based policy approach provides the best way of addressing the issue, as Britain’s then Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government did in 2010 when it passed the Child Poverty Act. That legislation requires the Government to release a national child poverty strategy every three years and to monitor its impact. Now, given the National-led Government here already has a strong focus on key result areas, the concept of a national child poverty strategy should not be a difficult one to embrace.
Moreover, the British legislation even sets out the specific measures to be addressed as part of the strategy, which are easily transferable to the New Zealand context. First, is a commitment to reduce by 10% by 2020 the number of households where the net annual income is less than 60% of the median annual household income. (This is referred to as relative poverty). The second commitment is to reduce by 5% by 2020 the number of households where net income is less than 60% of the base level of income. (These are the households in absolute poverty.) Third, there is a commitment to reduce the number of households that have been in the relative poverty group above for more than three years, although no specific target has been set here. Fourth, the Government is required to set by regulation the circumstances by which a child is considered to be suffering deprivation, which could include a basic index (such as having good clothing, rainwear and footwear, (similar to the Children’s Commissioner’s suggestions), and to reduce by 5% by 2020 the number of households where household income is less than 70% of mean household income.
With some tweaking for the New Zealand context, these measures set a framework for action, which could easily be embodied in similar legislation here, or in a special Government policy package.
While the words will remain difficult for some to want to utter, a move in this direction will confirm that actions are always more effective than mere words. And what is more, the shift from semantics to substance will have a real impact on the poorest children and families in our country.