A visitor from the Hawkes Bay, our very own Children's Commissioner, has just thrown a bomb into the middle of our debate on child poverty this election year... will anyone notice?

In case you missed it, the Children's Commissioner just got a little bit radical. No, go on then, quite a lot radical. The kind of radical that would have Paula Bennett spluttering into her weekend coffee.

Dr Russell Wills has been good at quietly proding and steadily advocating for Kiwi kids. He's urged New Zealanders to tell politicians to spend more on making children healthier, less poor and safer. He's asked the rich and the older to think about making sacrifices for the younger and the needy. When the government wouldn't measure child poverty in this country, he went to the JR McKenzie Trust and got half a million dollars for an annual report of his own.

So he's shown worked away at his own hushed revolution, of sorts, yet refusing to really storm the baricades. He's called for child poverty to be a key election issue without being willing to say the provocative thing that will start a debate.

Until this weekend. Newsrooms have missed the grab so far, but on The Nation Dr Russell Wills said it is "scandalous" that we treat our senior citizens so much better than our children; where one gets a universal benefit, the other doesn't. As a result, three percent of retirees live in hardship, while 18 percent of children do. It's all pretty clear.

So what to do about it? Well this is where the radical begins. Wills said:

I think that our tax and benefit system are actually part of the same thing. And it’s not working. It’s way too complicated. People who have entitlements don’t get them. So we need to simplify it substantially.

But he was only warming up.

Repeating a line he's taken before, he called for a Universal Child Benefit until a child is three years-old; and after that state support, if needed, should switch from money for the baby to money to help the parents back to work.

But then came the headline. Benefits, he said, are just too low:

Lisa Owen: So what do you think should happen with the level of payment?

Russell Wills: We need to decide as a society what an adequate standard of living is for children. Not just to be fed, but to participate, particularly for our youngest kids because that’s when they’re most vulnerable. So what the science tells us is it’s about where it was when I was delivering Dad’s scripts around the poor part of Maraenui, back in the late 80s and 90s. So that’s roughly half as much again as it is now. So let’s restore it back to where it was when we were kids. I don’t think that’s unachievable.

In real terms, restore it back to where it was?

Yeah.

Wills stepped outside the accepted political discourse, further out than anyone except Mana has gone, and said benefit levels must increase, and increase significantly. By as much as 50 percent.

This is a man who, when first appointed, Paula Bennett praised for his experience and expertise:

“He understands the issue New Zealand families are facing because he sees it every day, it’s that real-world connection that makes a dual role the right option".

I'm guessing she's not going to be delighted with where that real-world connection has taken him.

In the 1990s, consecutive National governments argued for the need of a substantial gap between what you could earn on a benefit and what you could earn in work. You'll remember Ruth Richardson and the 'mother of all budgets'. After a quarter of a century of frozen benefits, in real terms, Wills says we've gone too far and the poor now are much worse off than the poor then. And it's time to act. It's not unachievable.

Which is laying it on the line. Here's hope his line gets noticed by journalists in the next few days, because who can remember when a public servant, even a part-time one, was so outspoken? And if that doesn't warrant a national conversation, I don't know what does.

Comments (32)

by Nick Gibbs on June 15, 2014
Nick Gibbs

It'll a hard sell. In Auckland Mum and Dad have a huge mortgage to manage, two kids to raise, who'll require support through to university and then possibly need to be assisted into their own home. After that there's retirement to think of. And occaionally the chance to participate in society by going to the pub, watching sky or visiting friends in Oz. Now their expected to financially support their neighbors kids. 

National will never go with it. The Greens might make it party policy, but what will David Cunliffe do? He needs these mum and dads to vote for him.

 

by Wayne Mapp on June 15, 2014
Wayne Mapp

Well, he certainly has runs his colours up the mast, just three months from the election. It is not as if he would not know which political parties would go with his viewpoints and which would not.

And it is not as if he was expressing "political" views on matters that are not directly connected to his role. Mind you if he was, they would not be particularly newsworthy in the way his current statements are..

by Alan Johnstone on June 15, 2014
Alan Johnstone

The very poor and those on benefits refuse to exercise political power by voting. The old vote in massive numbers and their benefits and perks are thus sacroscant. 

by Draco T Bastard on June 15, 2014
Draco T Bastard

It was interesting watching the interviewer on The Nation avoiding talking about raising taxes to pay for it and was flabbergsated when Wills' said that it was "people like us" that would have to pay for it. She was definitely pushing the idea that the retired would have to miss out and not the well off.

by Katharine Moody on June 15, 2014
Katharine Moody

Child poverty in NZ is a huge embarrassment to me - I read accounts of it like this;

http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/10142203/This-isn-t-my-sob-story-I-m-lucky

.. and I'm unreservedly ashamed that this is what NZ has become for many of our children and their parents. This observation by the children's mother is particularly poignant;

"How my kids see the world now frightens me. They've been so accepting, they don't squabble about not having their own space. It worries me a bit that they won't complain - that this has become normal."

Our health professionals, like the Children's Commissioner, see the effects of it daily. One of the most important things Dr Wills points out is that we cannot look at just one side of the ledger - tax and welfare must both be reformed. But I think the focus of the interviewer is all wrong in suggesting it requires taking from one potentially vulnerable part of the population (NZ superannuitants) to give to another (NZ children) - that seems to just be setting up another inter-generational argument. The common element in all poverty, regardless of age, is an absense of accumulated capital. That is why superannuitants who go into retirement without owning their own home are poor/cash strapped in comparison to their homeowning peers.  Again, the numbers/science from the Retirement Commissioner is clear on this issue.

That makes it clear to me that we have to look to focus taxation on capital, not income. So far the only proposal I've come across that comprehensively analyses this both sides of the ledger issue is Gareth Morgan's Big Kahuna. The other very important matter that he brings to the fore in his analysis is the benefit abatement problem - the disincentive to part time earning by those on income-tested (i.e., non-universal) benefits.

I do think it is time for revolutionary social change initiatives - meaning not just tweeking the existing system. Governments around the world found ways to bail out those with accumulated capital in the wake of the GFC - only exacerbating the intergenerational problem that al the children of today will need to work through in the future. Here in NZ these same children came to the aid of the SCF shareholders to the tune of $1.6 billion dollar bailout - all borrowed money charged to their account. Time I think for us to put that accumulated capital to work for them.  

by mikesh on June 15, 2014
mikesh

Gareth Morgan's so called capital tax is not a actually a tax on capital but a tax on capital's yield; in other words it is just the income tax that the owner would pay in any case on that yield. However his proposal contains the proviso that where the yield is less than 6% the owner should pay tax on the basis of a 6% yield. Morgan also insists though that private dwellings, whose yield is of course zero should be included, but that the tax should in these cases should be based on the homeowner's equity rather than the total value of the dwelling. This would in particlar hit superannuitants whose home is fully paid for. 

by Katharine Moody on June 15, 2014
Katharine Moody

mikesh, yes, but I would add a qualifier that it would hit hard the superannuitant whose home is fully paid for and who has no other income or additional capital stores. The authors recognise this issue for present day retirees and provide a couple of possible options that might assist in terms of a transition period;

http://www.bigkahuna.org.nz/retired.aspx

 

by Peter Matthewson on June 15, 2014
Peter Matthewson

Good on him I say. All he is calling for is for income support in real terms to be restored to the level it was maintained at by bipartisan consensus from at least as far back as the 1960s until Ruth Richardson's mother of all budgets. 

Of course prior to Roger Douglas governments of both political flavours also used to maintain a deliberate policy of full employment. Since then the prevailing economic doctrine has been that some level of unemployment is good for the economy. But National governments especially, rather than reqarding the unemployed for their service to the economy by being unemployed, have taken an increasingly harsh and punitive approach to beneficiaries, culminating in the so called reforms of the last year. 

A return to more socially just and compassionate welfare policies and provisions is long overdue. As Paula Bennett said Russell Wills "understands the issue New Zealand families are facing because he sees it every day, it’s that real-world connection".  

It's time she and other political parties started listening to him. 

by Nick Gibbs on June 16, 2014
Nick Gibbs

Of course full employment was achieved by padding out state owned enterprises like Railways and Telecom to the extent they could function but left the country insolvent.

by Richard Aston on June 16, 2014
Richard Aston

I am really pleased that Dr Russell Wills is trying to throw a good sized stone into the pond. He's right we need a better finaincial platform to support those children whoes parents do not have the means to do so themselves. Thats a decent society.

I can only hope that in this election year's cluttered political debate his voice cuts through. Good on you Tim for trying to do that.

 

 

by Richard Aston on June 16, 2014
Richard Aston

Katharine you are so right, "it is time for revolutionary social change initiatives" and has been for some time. Who will have the courage to champion these? Will the voters support them?

 

 

by Andrew Osborn on June 16, 2014
Andrew Osborn

The Devil is in the detail.

It's all very well for a paediatrician to request we ensure our kids are well nourished, clothed and educated. Few would argue against that, but how exactly do we implement it?

How do we ensure the money handed to parents gets spent wisely and on the children? There is ample evidence to show that a lot of the money going to the poor is not currently spent well. What would change that? Remember the Kahui family were getting $2087.48 a week in benefits when they killed those twins. More money wouldn't have helped in their case.

Perhaps the best solution would be to go back to my old school days in the UK and focus on services rather than money. Like free school lunches and mandatory medical/dental check-ups at school.

 

 

by Nick Gibbs on June 16, 2014
Nick Gibbs

$2087.48? That's far more than most middle class incomes. Do you have a source for this?

by Andrew Osborn on June 16, 2014
Andrew Osborn

Google is your friend! You will find references to this exact sum in various newspapers and Hansard.

The key point is: Throwing tax payers money at a problem isn't going to fix this. It can be argued that the structure of the current benefit system is partly causing it.

 

by DeepRed on June 16, 2014
DeepRed

And just as radical an idea is Gareth Morgan's UBI as outlined in 'Big Kahuna'.

Andrew Osborn: And where did the newspapers and Hansard get their sources from? If it wasn't from the MSD or Police, then Benjamin Disraeli's "lies, damned lies, and statistics" comes to mind. And I've said it before, but while the welfare system is imperfect, would a zero-welfare system really be worth it if the money saved gets eaten by firearms dealers and razor wire installers?

An underlying issue is that the low-skill industrial jobs of old have been made obsolete by technology and globalisation, and the new jobs replacing them are either plum jobs with much steeper learning curves, or are dead-end jobs.

by DeepRed on June 16, 2014
DeepRed

One more thing, Andrew: if you don't mind me asking a personal question, do you live in a gated community?

by Nick Gibbs on June 16, 2014
Nick Gibbs

"One more thing, Andrew: if you don't mind me asking a personal question, do you live in a gated community?"

Nope! I don't live in a gated community. But if I was pulling in $2,087.48 a week, I bloody well would.


by Richard Aston on June 16, 2014
Richard Aston

Andrew: "How do we ensure the money handed to parents gets spent wisely and on the children?"

Its called trust. Same trust we give to our politicians, our business leaders, our retired superannuates, our police etc etc.

Andrew:  “There is ample evidence to show that a lot of the money going to the poor is not currently spent well.”

I think that evidence is mainly in your head Andrew and says more about your prejudices than anything else.   

 

by Andrew Osborn on June 16, 2014
Andrew Osborn

Nick: Priceless mate! Keep it up.

For reference to the Left wing denialists:

http://www.parliament.nz/en-nz/pb/debates/debates/speeches/48HansS_20060...

Rodney Hide: Does he understand the anger and frustration of Kiwis who work hard to look after their own children, and pay taxes, at providing an estimated $2,087.48 a week to a family who gave no care to their babies despite family members not having to work and having an income twice that of many families who do?

Like I said, it's a matter of public record

 

 

by Alan Johnstone on June 16, 2014
Alan Johnstone

The $2087.48 isn't a matter of public record, it's based speculation by the SST and may or may not be correct.

However it covers around a dozen people, living at 2 addresses who have been lumped together in an entirely arbitary fashion to make a political point.




by Nick Gibbs on June 16, 2014
Nick Gibbs

"Its called trust. Same trust we give to our politicians, our business leaders, our retired superannuates, our police etc etc."

All these groups are audited quite closely and not trusted at all. Not to audit them would be naive. So the question remains: How do we ensure the money parents get is spent wisely on the children and not wasted?

 

 

  

by Draco T Bastard on June 16, 2014
Draco T Bastard

Google is your friend! You will find references to this exact sum in various newspapers and Hansard.

Googled it, all I can find I Rodney Hide spouting off with backing information.

Like I said, it's a matter of public record

Nope, all it is is Rodney Hide spouting off with no context.

There's absolutely no way that the mother and father of the twins had an income of over $2000 per week.

However it covers around a dozen people, living at 2 addresses who have been lumped together in an entirely arbitary fashion to make a political point.

Yep, that's what I was thinking.

by Richard Aston on June 17, 2014
Richard Aston

Nick "All these groups are audited quite closely and not trusted at all. Not to audit them would be naive. So the question remains: How do we ensure the money parents get is spent wisely on the children and not wasted?"

What, we don't trust our retired superannuates and we audit them closely, really ?

by Nick Gibbs on June 17, 2014
Nick Gibbs

True, my mistake. However the remaining groups are audited. Most people recieving taxpayer funding are. Pensioners aren't audited, but seem to do a good job looking after what they get - inferring from the Children's Commissioner's data , only 3% are deprived. Parents who receive child allowances not so much - again inferring from CC's data.

by Katharine Moody on June 17, 2014
Katharine Moody

Andrew's post is a prime example of the rhetoric of demonizing the poor. He starts with the line "the devil is in the detail" and then goes on to tell us that the poor are not actually poor, they're actually richer than "us" hard-working folks and worse than that: they're also child killers.

How this rhetoric (example cut and pasted below) developed through history is discussed here;

http://www.war-times.org/timwiseinterview

You can hear this rhetoric regurgitated on Fox and on talk radio. There’s this constant stream of critique, not just about social safety net programs which had been critiqued by conservatives for years, but a real critique of the core humanity of people who need those programs, whether it’s health care, unemployment insurance or food stamps. It’s people saying things like people should be ashamed to be on food stamps, we should drug test them, we should make them jump through all kinds of hoops, we should make it harder for them, we should make them feel pain. Literally people saying these things. Or saying the poor aren’t really poor after all because they have washing machines and color TVs and microwaves.

Andrew is a product of rhetoric/propoganda - pawns in the army of plutocracy and elitism.

 

by DeepRed on June 17, 2014
DeepRed

And this is the same Rodney Hide who fell from grace after campaigning on perk-busting... only to be caught with his hand in the till.

Nick Gibbs: "So the question remains: How do we ensure the money parents get is spent wisely on the children and not wasted?"

Cynical answer: as Jonathan Swift put it, a modest proposal to sell the kids as food.

by Richard Aston on June 17, 2014
Richard Aston

Well said Katherine. We need a basic level of kindness when considering social safety net programs.

Nick , I am still struggling to understand your evidence for the assertion that money given to poorer parents will not be spent wisely .  Or your assumption that " Pensioners aren't audited, but seem to do a good job looking after what they get" seem to be? How do you know this? I know a few pensioners using their pension to save for overseas trips , if they were solo parents we would be up in arms about it.
Whats the difference?

 



 

by stuart munro on June 17, 2014
stuart munro

Good on Dr Wills. It says something sad about our parties though, that they were not already leading on these issues. I'd quite like to see child poverty reduced to pre-Rogergnomics levels.

Let me mention an old hobbyhorse too: David Cunnliffe has confirmed that there will be no more slave fishing under the incoming government. It's a curious thing to me that this practice ran for nearly thirty years. No-one has been charged, and no officials carpeted, as the policy of tolerance was official. But surely illegal. It would be best if both slavery and child poverty were permanently consigned to the margins of history. I'm sure most New Zealanders expected they had been already. And politicians both left and right should commit to keeping them out or be hounded relentlessly in the press.

by Katharine Moody on June 17, 2014
Katharine Moody

 It would be best if both slavery and child poverty were permanently consigned to the margins of history. I'm sure most New Zealanders expected they had been already.

Couldn't agree more. The punishment for selling your fishing quota to a foreign vessel slave employer, should be forfeiture of the quota, in full forever. That would stamp the practice out immediately (as well as get NZ fisherman back into jobs immediately).

And politicians both left and right should commit to keeping them out or be hounded relentlessly in the press.

Very happy to oblige there.

by Andrew Osborn on June 20, 2014
Andrew Osborn

Alan: The $2087.48 isn't a matter of public record, it's based speculation by the SST and may or may not be correct.

Wriggle all you like but nobody is disputing that number. It IS on public record

But getting back to the issuie: This much money didn't stop those twins being bashed to death, so how much money does it take? $3000 pw? $5000 pw? $7000pw? Exactly how much of the taxpayers money are you prepared to blow to prove yourself wrong?

Money will never replace the love of decent parents.

by Tim Watkin on June 24, 2014
Tim Watkin

Thanks for all the comments y'all. Andrew, my problem with your use of the Kahui's as an example is that it's choosing the worst possible anecdote to make an argument about the universal. You just can't extrapolate anything meaningful for a single example. On that logic all businessmen must be dodgy, look at Hotchin. Or all becase Lou Vincent cheated at cricket, we can make assumptions about the character of all cricketers.

Money doesn't stop violence in a single situation. Indeed there are plenty of rich people who are violent. But I bet you'd find that over a whole society and on average, families function better on many levels (including less violence) if they have a stable income that provides for the basics of life. Therefore, if you take out the fact that the $2087.48 seems to have been spread across a large number of people, I'm sure you'd find that if a normal-sized single household was living on $2000 that would mean better outcomes for the kids.

Before you say it, I'm not advocating that amount. And I acknowledge that should come from earning your way in the world. I'm not even saying that Wills' plan is economically viable or wise (there's nothing sacrosanct about the 1970s, except of course there was less child poverty, so a link between higher benefits and lower child poverty is a pretty obvious link to make). But where not enough money is coming into the household, for whatever reason, are you comfortable with the children in that home paying the price?

Because just as those who want to give more have to answer the hard questions about how that money will get spent and how you guarantee the kids' needs are met, you surely have to answer the converse questions. most notably, is poverty a child's fault? And if not, watcha gonna do about it?

by Matthew Whitehead on June 24, 2014
Matthew Whitehead

This is not radical, either in the popular sense of meaning "extreme", or the dictionary sense of discarding mainstream social assumptions.

The current benefits are not adequate to lift people out of poverty. They are survivable- under certain circumstances, but not for everyone, and certainly not enough to prepare anyone for re-entry to the workforce.

No, raising benefits will not be enough alone. That's because it's not a radical policy, and we'll need one to deal with abusive parents. We'll need one to lift people out of poverty.

But 150% of the current benefits would give people who are motivated a bit more of a chance. A chance to re-enter our communities on a more level field, a chance at a job, or just a chance to not be hungry if they don't get some sort of government-subsidised accomodation or assistance from their family. It's a start. And a desperately needed one.

As for saying this is a radical amount? OK, tell you what, if you can live without spending more than the level of current benefit payments for six months, oh, and without wearing any suits or other business clothes you currently own, then I will believe you. And that's pretty generous, because that still probably has you a lot better off than most people on a benefit in this country.

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