Today the Herald published a story lamenting the extra cost of local, free-range and organic foods, the very foods we’re being encouraged to buy and eat. They estimate that the clean, green Kiwi options cost us on average 25% more. For people on a limited budget, that isn’t an option at all. The Taranaki Daily News got closer to the heart of the problem with a story headlined ‘Free food draws poor kids to class’. It quotes principals from Taranaki schools who say that some of their students rely on their school to provide breakfast and even lunch, just to survive. Poverty in New Zealand is a problem we often conveniently ignore, preferring to see our country as a land of milk and honey. Unfortunately, milk and honey are off the menu for hundreds of thousands of Kiwis.
More than 200,000 of our kids are living below the poverty line; over 48,000 of them go to school without breakfast. This is a disgrace. No child in this country should go hungry. No New Zealand child should be cold or ill-clothed or living in an unhealthy or overcrowded house. No child should be denied an education just because learning is too hard when you arrive at school cold, wet and hungry – if you get there at all. The government has prioritised a number of policies to stimulate the economy in an effort to get us out of the current recession. None of these policies, to my mind, tackles head-on the most urgent task of all – eliminating ‘child poverty’. This should be the number one priority. Nothing is more important. Nothing is going to stimulate the economy better in the long run than having our kids grow up healthy and well educated. It’s a damn sight more important than ultra-fast broadband and super-highways.
‘Child poverty’ is a misleading term. It implies that the only people affected are the children. But every child living in poverty is part of a household that is also living in poverty. Whether that’s the result of generations of welfare dependency or a lack of jobs is not the issue. The issue is how to break the cycle and get these kids into a situation where we can be confident they have a better future – by giving them a better present. Brian and I used to support hungry kids in Africa; today our donations go to Kids Can to support hungry kids in New Zealand. If you’d suggested a few years ago that people might need to do this, we’d have scoffed. But this isn’t a problem that can be solved by donations and charities and volunteers. This needs a full-frontal government assault; it needs policies and budgets and resources; it needs cross-party co-operation. Above all, it needs the courage to accept the reality of the problem, and the will to make this shameful situation one of the past.