Caring for our children in need

Why is it that so many people respond brilliantly to single children in trouble but can’t relate to them in the plural?

The recent outpouring of support for “Little Pumpkin” after her mother was murdered and she was abandoned by her father was impressive. It’s more than just responding to a defenceless middle-class child left to the wolves because similar surges of sympathy and support have come for the Kahui twins and Nia Glassie.

It’s a response to the vulnerability of children. We’d all like to have given them a few hugs and kisses. The human urge to protect our children appears to be very strong.

But is it? New Zealand has vulnerable children in the hundreds of thousands. These are kids who leave for school hungry every day; are well behind in basic education; rarely have a holiday away from home; have appalling health statistics; may be abused and even killed by violent parents or relatives; suffer sexual abuse at the hands of caregivers, etc. Where is the public sympathy here?

It’s as if some people can cope with the plight of a single child but print a list of stats about children in poverty, despair and living lives of quiet misery and the same people turn off. They quickly resort to a well-rehearsed litany which justifies ignoring these kids by blaming their parents. There are irresponsible parents behind the suffering of some kids and this can never be excused, but the reasons for hopelessness and despair in the lives of families and children follow directly from economic and social policies.

Two reports released by the Paediatric Society last week show appallingly poor health among children from low-income families in New Zealand. We may not have reached the top half of the OECD for much else but we are second only to the United States in the levels of child disease related to poverty.

There is little point regurgitating here the grim statistics which condemn our economic and social polices in hundreds of pages of depressing reading. We all know it’s a no- excuses indictment.

And it’s not getting any better. Spokesman for the Child Poverty Action Group Associate Professor Mike O’Brien says the health of children in low-income families, whether on benefits or in work, has not improved in the last four years. At best it has stopped deteriorating for some diseases.

He makes the point that policy change over the past 20 years has undermined the incomes of the poorest families by allowing low wages and benefits to fall so much compared to everyone else.

Most tellingly he says, “Children most severely affected are those from beneficiary families, trying to cope on incomes languishing at levels set in 1991. With family assistance increasingly linked to people’s ability to work, children of parents on benefits miss out and, predictably, are becoming sicker.”

You may remember 1991 produced the “mother of all budgets” delivered by National’s Ruth Richardson, who proudly boasted her courageous slashing of benefits. Sixteen years later, with the last eight under Labour-led governments, and these families and their children are still barely third-class citizens.

Reading the Government’s response, one could be forgiven for thinking the worst of the problem was behind us with just a few remaining issues to deal with. Health Minister David Cunliffe says the reports “highlight recent gains as well as the remaining challenges”.

He says the Government is “committed to the challenge of child health” and goes on to say the Government wants to ensure that our children and young people, who make up a third of our population, can achieve their full potential.

This is feeble sophistry.

Government policies continue to punish children in benefit-dependant households by denying dignity and respect to their parents and caregivers.

These comprehensive child health reports show the health trends as well as the current situation are alarming and yet the causes are easily identifiable. We can sort out these problems readily with the right policies.

We must ensure every family has adequate housing, family assistance is based on need irrespective of the employment status of the caregivers and basic healthcare funding is likewise prioritised on need.

In the past, New Zealand saw these as higher priorities. Most of us do care but not yet enough to demand the changes needed to give all kids a fair go.

Just because tens of thousands of our children are hidden in anonymous statistics rather than portrayed as individuals on the front pages of our newspapers, they are no less in desperate need of attention. They are all our responsibility in this land of plenty.