Annette King has been competently working away on Labour’s “Children First” policy behind the scenes and it will certainly form a key plank of our election campaign. It is not difficult to recognise that much of the content in Children’s Commissioners Report, aligns nicely with what Labour has proposed. What must be of concern to New Zealanders is the extent to which the Welfare Working Group recommendations, stand in stark contrast to both Labour’s ‘Children’s First’ policy and the Children’s Commissioners staunch focus on prioritising children’s development.
In this post – I want to discuss the WWG’s recommendations and the contradictions that exist along with the harm that they could cause.
It’s estimated that 222,000 children live in benefit-dependant households. Compared to OECD countries New Zealand has unacceptably high levels of child poverty. Children are one of the most important stakeholder groups to consider when measuring the impact of any welfare reform, yet are often voiceless. We need to be do everything we can to safeguard children from the impacts of poverty – a situation outside their control but which can have a huge impact on their future lives. The Welfare Working Group has stated an attempt to give prominence to the issue of child well-being in its recent report on welfare reform and yet the recommendations are largely short sighted, punitive and may have the unintended consequence of worsening the care and safety of children.
Considering children as a central part of welfare reform requires much more than consideration of the impact on children tagged on after the fact. A child centred policy requires that any likely impacts on children are considered well in advance of implementation and are subject to open debate and thorough scrutiny by all stakeholder groups. It is therefore disturbing to read in the report that assessment of the impact on children will occur post-implementation. Our children (particularly children who are already disadvantaged by poverty) deserve much better than that.
The recommendations need to be seen in context of the current economic climate and political priorities of the National government. Two years ago we saw the axe fall on the training incentive allowance – immediately dashing the hopes of higher wages and professional career prospects for many sole parents. It is not only the ability for parents to provide adequately for their children that was jeopardised with this ill-considered move, but also the positive flow on effects to the children’s educational achievement (educated mothers have more highly educated children).
Some of the WWG’s stated priorities sit in stark contrast to the National Government’s cuts. The WWG says access to approved ECE should be a priority. But the National government has already undermined the possibility of this occurring by slashing ECE spending earlier in the year. The hardest hit by ECE rises will be the families in poverty in most need of quality and affordable education and care for their children.
When this reality is combined with the WWG’s recommendation that sole parents actively seek work when their youngest child turns three or even younger, real concerns arise. I believe that anyone who wants to work and is in a position to work should be supported into work but each case needs to be dealt with on an individual basis. Will the push to force sole parents out in to the workforce be premature for some? Yes, it will. And that is even before we consider that the jobs just aren’t there.
Not all sole parents will have access to quality and affordable ECE options. There will be some parents who will be forced to look for alternative care arrangements with family members or even older children which may not ordinarily be considered. That is not ideal and would be a missed opportunity to give our children the best possible start in life. As a sole parent myself, extended family have always played a part in caring for my child but as an educator I know that quality early childhood education by qualified teachers in licensed centres is key to maximising our children’s potential in life.
This year we saw an abysmal rise in the minimum wage, while the cost of living seems to sky rocket — propelled by a hike in GST, rising oil and milk prices and the cost of visiting a doctor. We also seen a government that is failing to create meaningful and flexible employment that might support young families. The recommendations of the WWG to push parents into work do not solve in any constructive way any of the real problems we are facing. Beneficiaries are not to blame for high levels of unemployment and the rising cost of living. The Government’s trajectory foretells a certain pathway to poverty for many– underemployed, unemployed or underpaid parents with insufficient support to up-skill or train opportunities, and facing increasingly high costs of living. This is far from the ‘brighter future’ New Zealand was promised by National.
The current political climate with National government’s spending cuts in crucial areas of funding such as education and training for sole parents and ECE makes it difficult to see how any welfare reforms under a National government can really be child-centred, despite what is claimed. Families need to know that they are going to be well supported when raising their young and that society puts a high value on the raising of children. National must recognise that any welfare reforms that they implement must put children first. We will be watching.