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One in five New Zealand children is living in poverty. Māori and Pasifika children are disproportionately represented in these statistics.
The income gap in New Zealand – the difference between high and low or no incomes – is the sixth most unequal of 23 rich countries (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009)
In New Zealand we are lucky to have very few cases of absolute poverty – a complete lack of basic human needs. Unfortunately, for some time now relative poverty – the condition of having fewer resources or less income than others within a society or country, or compared to worldwide averages – is on the rise.
The statistics tell us that the proportion of children living in hardship in New Zealand (defined as below 60% of median household income after housing costs) fell from 26% to 19% between 2004 and 2008 (Perry, 2010). However, hardship rates for sole parent beneficiary families remained steady at around 55% and since 2008, the economic recession and Government policy have contributed to a widening of the gap.
Looking at the statistics close up, hardship rates for sole parent families were around four times those for two- parent families (39% vs. 11%). By 2009, 49% of all children living in poverty were in one-parent households (Perry 2010) – but the problem is not just one of single parenting. We currently live in a society that makes good parenting increasingly difficult. Work hours are long, wages are low (and have stagnated) and very few jobs outside the state sector have generous – or even easily accessible – parental leave benefits.
Poverty and Education – Not an Easy Mix
What children are saying
What educators are saying
Early Childhood Education (ECE) can do much to reduce these disparities. Unfortunately there is no right to ECE in New Zealand. ECE is not affordable for many families, and poor children are more likely to miss out. Any child starting school without ECE is significantly disadvantaged and is unlikely to catch up. Addressing inequalities must begin early on. In order for a child to reach school with a good level of development they need a good start in life, from a healthy pregnancy, to being raised in a home where there is good quality and quantity of interaction.
Addressing continued inequalities in early child development, access to ECE, educational achievement and acquisition of skills, sustainable and healthy communities, social and health services, and employment and working conditions will have multiple benefits that extend beyond reductions in health inequalities
While low income in a family is a strong predictor of poor educational achievement (Cassen, 2007; Hirsch, 2007, St John & Wynd, 2008) it is not possible to draw a straight line between poverty and poor educational achievement. Some children living in poverty do well at school; other children from wealthier families do not. What we do know however, is that poverty attracts a cluster of conditions: poor housing, poor health and hygiene, lack of access to ECE, addictive behaviours, lack of technology for learning in homes and lack of support for education. The baskets of support that children of the poor bring with them to schools and centres are mostly empty.
At every stage of schooling, children living in poverty do worse and make less progress than their “better- off” classmates. The persistence of this achievement gap is of great concern. Poverty, the resources parents can bring to their children’s schooling, and the aspirations and expectations held by both parents and their children all count (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009, CPAG, 2011).
“Poverty is...going to school and no-one understands the difficulties families are having – shame and embarrassment ... Kids playing up at school and getting in trouble because of family issues... Being bullied... Schools reacting to kids’ behaviour and not why they are acting that way and maybe kicked out of school...not being able to do things and getting in trouble...not being able to get to school” (From children and young people’s group definition of poverty, Palmerston North)
“It’s clear that more families are struggling financially in the past two – three years than previously...many parents are defaulting on fees/donations...more children are requiring support (like breakfasts in schools) or not having adequate lunches...more children are without appropriate clothing or resources when they come to school...more children are unable to go to camps or take part in extracurricular activities (NZEI OCC survey on issues impacting on children’s learning).
There is a growing base of international research and evidence (Goodman and Gregg, 2010, UNICEF, 2011) that shows that the gap in attainment between children from the poorest fifth and the richest fifth is already large by the age of five, and grows more rapidly during the primary school years.
The cost to the nation of child poverty and failure in school is high. The Christchurch Health and Development Study (The Children’s Social Health Monitor NZ, 2010), suggests that exposure to low family income during childhood and early adolescence may increase the risk of leaving school without qualifications, economic inactivity, early parenthood and criminal activity. Adjusting for mediating factors (e.g. parental education, maternal age, and sole parent status) reduces the magnitude of these associations somewhat, but they do not disappear completely, suggesting that the pathways linking low family income to long term outcomes are complex, and in part may be mediated by other socioeconomic variables” (Perry 2010, p. 55).
Inadequate income leads to low quality, poorly insulated housing, which contributes to poor health and for children, low educational attainment. There is also a direct link between inadequate income, stress, self- stigma and poor health. Poor health and low educational attainment increase the likelihood of long-term support on social welfare benefits (Welfare Justice in New Zealand, 2011). There is a general consensus that the relationship between poverty and adverse educational outcomes for children is not linear. However the impact of poverty plays out in lack of achievement and attendance in schools, and in ECE, in access, lack of transport, attendance and illness. The lack of clear cause and effect between participation, achievement and poverty means that children’s vulnerability is less visible and therefore it receives less attention in setting the policy responses. The current Government’s cuts to public services impacts on vital front line services. Proposals for reforms to welfare are highly likely to negatively impact on children. ECE cuts have already had an impact with a 12% rise in fees and several centres facing closure as result of lower enrolments because of the fee increases.
We know quality ECE is linked to better educational outcomes later in life, and is a powerful ‘equaliser’, helping to reduce educational disadvantage among children from low-income households. Both New Zealand and international research confirms that attendance at good-quality ECE has lasting effects on educational attainment during school years. The countries that have maintained low child poverty rates tend to be those with a high rate of participation in state-supported ECE (Wylie and Hodgen, 2007).
An impressive body of research confirms that returns from quality early childhood education are high and long-lasting. Therefore, this is one of the most important investments a country can make (ECE Taskforce report, June 2011).
Early childhood services must be available and must include universal services, such as access to early childhood education, as well as targeted interventions, including: economic hardship, childhood disabilities, child maltreatment and parental substance abuse and mental illness. Programmes that combine child-focused educational activities with explicit attention to parent-child relationships appear to have the greatest impact. Longitudinal research indicates that generic programmes are less effective for families facing significant risk (Gluckman, 2011)
The Salvation Army Report Card had this to say about ECE in New Zealand:
To those that have, more will be given. The early rapid and now slowing expansion of spending on early childhood education has failed to bridge the educational disadvantage around unequal and unfair access to ECE opportunities. The current review of ECE by the Early Education Advisory Group ... should aim to provide ECE policy-makers with some insight as to why their policies have failed so miserably for Maori children and other children from poor communities. (Salvation Army, 2011, p.15)
We know that while schools and centres cannot completely overcome the devastating effects of child poverty, they can, make a major contribution to breaking inter-generational poverty, if they have resources in cross- agency strategies.
We know that unemployment, low-paid work, and the accompanying social, health and family issues - including child poverty - occur disproportionately in Māori and Pasifika families. Māori and Pasifika young people are at increased risk of a wide range of adverse outcomes, including educational underachievement, antisocial behaviours, problems with alcohol, mental health disorders and suicidal behaviours. We also know that part of the solution is to promote the great programmes and activities that are happening for tamariki Māori and tamaiti o Pasifika in schools, kura, kōhanga reo, language nests and early childhood centres throughout New Zealand. The provision of learning opportunities and resources in first languages encourage families to participate, assist children to learn and their families to feel valued members of school and centre communities.
Participation in high-quality early childhood education “can make the difference between having a life of poverty and dependence or a life characterised by on-going self-development and positive social engagement”. (Early Childhood Education Taskforce, 2011, June p.13). Good quality ECE, building on the foundations for literacy and numeracy in school are powerful antidotes to the risks associated with child poverty and deprivation (Fletcher & Dwyer, 2008). Schools and centres can be effective bases for non-stigmatising provision of nourishing meals and health services, and for engaging parents in their children’s education and care. School programmes can counteract deprivation by enabling children and young people to participate in cultural and sporting activities, homework centres and computing equipment (Early Childhood Education Taskforce, June 2011).
But the provision of these services comes at a cost – a cost that can no longer be met by the goodwill of boards of trustees, parents, schools and centres, educators and communities. Government must not promulgate policy that abrogates its responsibility towards children and families.
Probably the best barometer of national policy is the status of a nation’s children. The negative effects of poverty on all levels of children’s lives and in particular school success have been widely demonstrated and accepted. The critical question for us must be – can these effects be prevented or reversed?
In response to growing concern, the Government is now initiating yet another ‘national discussion around what’s in the interest of children”. This follows a budget that delivered little and promised nothing substantial for children (Else, 2011). NZEI believes that this is not the time for more “conversation” or months of public ‘consultations’ that reveal little that is not already known.
NZEI believes that there is no ‘magic bullet’ to cure the systemic nature of educational underachievement by children in poverty – but there is clearly a need to focus on developing a strategy that addresses factors both in and outside of the education system.
NZEI calls for a cross-party national commitment to raising the educational achievement of children living in poverty. This must include a celebration and promulgation of programmes which have been proven effective and the provision and resourcing of coordinated, sustainable wrap-around, cross-agency approaches and investment in our children – and our future.
NZEI believes the Government must develop and implement non-punitive policies and programmes specifically targeted at reducing poverty. This means a coordinated approach that relies as much on social assistance, health and housing improvements as it does on education.
NZEI believes the Government is doing little to combat child poverty. Casting stones at individual agencies, schools and services will not alleviate the problem. By ignoring it or throwing piecemeal solutions at it, Government is only supporting the growth of inequality and child poverty. Failure to address this issue will ultimately come at a huge cost to society as a whole.
Recommendations for Government
Child poverty requires a bold approach. This must include:
· A fair and universal approach to supporting children to participate in society.
· The development of a coordinated and audited cross-party/cross-agency approach that targets child poverty and audits the impact of Government policy on children.
· A specific focus on quality public services for the early years to prevent poor educational outcomes which must include investment in high-quality publicly-funded universally-available early childhood education, particularly in disadvantaged areas, staffed by fully-qualified early childhood teachers who can deliver the ECE curriculum.
· Investment in extra resources for schools and centres to support children in poverty to succeed.
· Investment in parenting support programmes that support parents to engage in their children’s learning.
· Investment partnerships between Government, schools/centres and the local communities to ensure freely-available food programmes and healthcare for low decile schools and centres so that all children have access to basic foods and healthcare regardless of the capability of their parents.
· Investment in the provision of a living wage for all New Zealanders. The minimum wage should be 60% of the average wage.