Children in crisis: is poverty New Zealand’s alternate pandemic?
Illustration credit: Leo Ioviero

‘Clean, Green, New Zealand’ and ‘100% Pure New Zealand’ are not the truisms that they may seem. Whilst the British and American retirees idealise New Zealand as the safe haven they wish to spend the rest of their days, those starting their days here face an alternate reality. Aotearoa (New Zealand) may have successfully flattened the Coronavirus curve but the long-lasting Child Poverty pandemic is still evident. 

Out of the OECD countries, New Zealand’s child poverty is only comparable to Russia, Chile, Israel, Turkey and Brazil. All of these countries lie above the OECD median child poverty percentage of 13.1% and have child poverty significantly higher than poverty at any other age group. This comparison will come as a shock to many, who only associate New Zealand with sun, sand, and sheep. The harsh reality is that in New Zealand children in poverty are three times more likely to fall ill, two times more likely to be hospitalised as a result, and face a six times higher rate of Sudden Unexpected Death in Infancy.

Rheumatic Fever is also something which thousands of Kiwi kids battle every winter. Rheumatic Fever is a result of cold, damp homes, and living in close contact. More than one in ten children in Aotearoa’s poorest communities do not have a bed to themselves. Rheumatic Fever can lead to life-long heart damage, not only devastating for New Zealand’s children but also the health system. Further, the Ministry of Health has found that children living in poverty are four times more likely to be obese than their counterparts living in leafy Remuera or Epsom. As has been brought to light across the globe recently, the health implications of obesity are startling, with obese COVID-19 deaths being 33% more likely. But a conversation on child poverty in New Zealand is not complete without also addressing the racial inequalities within it.

New Zealand is as ‘Pure’ as it is white. Pākehā’s (European New Zealanders) make up 70% of the population. Only 10% of Pākehā children live in child poverty. However, Māori children are more likely to live in households with low income or material hardship than at the national level; the incidence of material hardship for Māori is around three times that for Pākehā and one in four Māori children are living in poverty. This is reflected in Māori infant mortality being 33% higher than non-Māori.

New Zealand’s colonial past is more widely acknowledged than in neighbouring Australia, with Te Reo Māori being encouraged in schools, and in the workplace, the reverence of the marae being preserved, and national recognition of Waitangi Day, when the ‘treaty’ of New Zealand was signed by Māori tribes and English colonists. However, this is a façade.

Māori people are still facing racism and discrimination to an astronomical degree. Māori unemployment is twice as high as non-Māori; Māori income is $6000 (£3080) less per annum than non-Māori, and Māori homelessness is 400% higher than non-Māori. Not only are indigenous people disproportionately hit by child poverty and to a devastating extent, but so too are New Zealand’s Pasifika Children. 29% of Pasifika children live in material hardship. As Associate Professor and spokesperson for Child Poverty Action Group, Susan St John, has noted ‘The fact that the burden of poverty is inequitably shared and has a disproportionate impact on Māori and Pasifika children indicates that racism implicit in policy design has helped create and maintain child and whanau poverty in New Zealand’.

In the time of Black Lives Matter, many New Zealanders will be relieved to not be living in America, or even the United Kingdom, where racism is perceived to be far worse. However, the racial disparities seen in poverty and the very real life-or-death implications of which are too large to be disregarded. 

To many New Zealanders racial wealth disparities do not come as a shock. South Auckland is known to be one of the poorest parts of New Zealand but is also one of the ‘least white’ areas. South Auckland has more off-licenses than supermarkets; more chicken shops than job vacancies. The poverty is visible, but is being ignored by the vast majority of New Zealanders, and certainly by our global image. As a teenager, I volunteered at a primary school in South Auckland, as a teaching assistant. What particularly stuck out to me was the image of two siblings in ‘mufti’ (non-uniform) as they couldn’t afford the school uniform, and the children arriving at school with no shoes, as theirs had broken or were sodden from the rain, with no spare pair. Children are ostracised and made to feel ashamed by the age of five. 

Julie Chapman, Founder and CEO of KidsCan Charitable Trust, noticed similar hardships at a school in Rotorua. One child told her they had “red soup” for dinner last night. She assumed this was tomato soup, perhaps with a side of toast and butter. But,  Aotearoa’s poorest children define “Red Soup” as the leftover boiled water that cocktail sausages had been cooked in the night before. This is all some children have to eat.

KidsCan is one of the brilliant charities in New Zealand fighting to redress the disparities facing thousands of Kiwi children every year. One of their main focuses is ensuring that every child has the basics to get the education they need. A crucial element of which is food. 174,000 kiwi kids live in food insecurity: going without breakfast and sometimes lunch several days a week. Unlike in the United Kingdom, and many other countries, New Zealand does not have a free school meals scheme. Even the majority of fee-paying and/or religious schools do not provide food. Kidscan ensures that children who need it most can get breakfast at school, and the food in their lunchboxes is topped up with fruit and KidsCan snacks. Fresh fruit and vegetables, and general basics, are all very expensive in New Zealand; typically 50% more expensive than in the United Kingdom. KidsCan are truly remarkable in what they do, they have adjusted their accessibility as a result of Coronavirus and this academic term are going to be providing 30% more children with the food they need, feeding 44,000 kiwi kids a day. 

The government, led by the world-renowned Jacinda Arden, are working on this. New Zealand has committed to implementing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. One of the first goals is to halve the number of kids living in poverty by 2030. “Our plan to halve child poverty in 10 years is making a difference but there is more to do and with families hit hard by the COVID-19 global pandemic, it’s important to increase that support in the areas it can make an immediate difference,” said Jacinda Arden.

Beginning in 2019 with 30, but expanding to 120 schools as of 2021, Years 1-8 in certain schools will have free lunch meals. Providing lunch to all students in participating schools is an attempt to ensure that every student who needs a free lunch can access one, and minimise any stigma that could result by receiving free meals. Entire school cooperation also reduces bureaucratic form filling; the cost and complexity of which could discourage eligible families from taking part. Lunches must be healthy and nutritious, based on the Ministry of Health’s nutrition guidelines. A typical weekly menu includes a variety of lunches such as wraps, vegetable sticks, dips, salads, soups, and hot lunches. Lunches are provided at an average cost of $5 (£2.55) excluding GST ‘per child, per day’ basis to cover food, preparation, and delivery.

Remarkably, New Zealand has also been one of the first countries in the world to announce free period products in schools, beginning in 2021. Schools will be able to ‘opt-in’ to the scheme. “We know that nearly 95,000 9-18-year-olds may stay at home during their periods due to not being able to afford period products. By making them freely available, we support these young people to continue learning at school,” Jacinda Ardern said.

Jacinda Arden faces an uphill battle – not only has she had to lead the government through natural disaster, terrorism, and pandemic, but now she must ensure her compassion reaches the mouths of Aotearoa’s children.