Social deniers dominate debate on kids

It says a lot about how distorted our view of children has become that another report highly critical of how we treat our kids disappeared from the media in just 24 hours last week.

The report, Doing Better for Children, was the first time the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development had reported on the wellbeing of children across 30 developed countries.

It’s a dismal read. We spend just half the amount other countries spend on children under five. We have low family incomes, high child mortality and high child poverty rates.

The OECD says our government should be spending a lot more on younger, deprived kids as well as ensuring we meet the needs of older disadvantaged children.

The lack of media interest is probably a reflection that plenty of other reports have delivered similar messages in recent years. The New Zealand Family Violence Commission says between 2000 and 2004 39 kiwi kids were murdered while a 2007 Unicef overview of child wellbeing in developed countries said New Zealand and the US are the worst countries for deaths for under-19-year-olds by accidents, murder, suicide and violence.

The list goes on. Most of us grew up to believe New Zealand was a great place to raise kids but what was once a source of pride is now just a discarded urban myth.

So where have we gone wrong with our kids? Why the big difference in attitudes between now and a generation ago?

The reason is simply that the debate on children has been hijacked by the same lobby which brought us the destructive economic policies of the past 25 years. These are the people who declared war on the welfare state in the 1980s and through a combination of free market policies drove hundreds of thousands of New Zealand families into poverty.

This lobby has successfully blamed rising social problems on the families they consigned to poverty.

This was nicely illustrated in the minor media storm around Whanganui mayor Michael Laws last week and his bullying letters to Maori students from a local intermediate school who dared to criticise his views over the spelling of the town’s name.

The pompous mayor got on his high horse and berated the kids. He did it because they were Maori. He said they should get serious with issues such as child abuse among Maori rather than worry about the spelling of the town’s name.

Yes the rates of child abuse among Maori are much higher but this is less a race issue than a reflection that Maori make up a much higher proportion of families living in poverty.

There is now a wealth of robust research which dispels the myths about social issues such as child abuse, health, education, crime, violence, teenage pregnancy and drug abuse. These problems arise directly from income inequality and have exploded in New Zealand because the gap between rich and poor has become a chasm.

We had a timely reminder of this last week with the news Telecom CEO Paul Reynolds took home over $5 million in salary and bonuses last year.

In 2000 a chief executive earned about eight times the average wage but by 2006 this had more than doubled to nineteen times. Now in 2009 we have the Telecom CEO earning 100 times the average wage.

With figures like these it’s no surprise we have among the highest income inequality in the developed world and soaring social problems. Policies which drive families into poverty through no fault of their own are policies which demoralise, dehumanise and alienate whole communities.

It’s no surprise that Laws was a National Party MP when these destructive economic policies were enthusiastically pushed through parliament. Having set vulnerable families up to fail Laws and his fellow travellers now blame them for the problems he helped create.

He has become a social-denier, barking madly up the wrong tree. All sound and fury but ineffectual in helping anyone except himself and his talk-back ratings.

Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia summed up the best place to start in dealing with our rampant social problems. She advocates removing GST from healthy foods, extending the in-work tax credit to families of the unemployed, making the first $25000 of income tax free and lifting the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Further on we should be introducing a capital gains tax on all but the family home, a financial transactions tax, steep death duties and abolishing GST altogether.

There are no excuses for child abuse but there are no excuses either for ignoring the reason we are no longer a great country to raise kids.