Prevention: The Best Way To Address Child Poverty

Mike O'Brien

The government has signalled that its main approach to child poverty is to concentrate on a small subset of poor children who live in ‘complex’ families with multiple needs. By contrast, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) believes that a comprehensive preventative approach is needed, not one that concentrates on responding to the worst outcomes of child poverty and deprivation and then only once these conditions have become patently obvious with families living in cars or casualties of our health and welfare systems that they can no longer be ignored.

While the rhetoric leading into the 2015 budget aims to ‘ensure children get a better start in life’ it is clear that only children in complex families will be targeted for poverty intervention programmes, reflecting a narrow interpretation of government’s Children’s Action Plan. This plan uses systematic targeting of ‘at risk’ children through information sharing agreements between national agencies involved in child welfare and protection. A Predictive Risk Model (PRM) is to be used to find children who have the highest risks of future abuse and neglect.

Based on this approach the Minister of Finance claims that only a very small percentage (1.05%) of New Zealand children require urgent intervention. It appears that these are the children that matter for social investment purposes while other children in families who are struggling financially, but living in an environment where abuse is not apparent, can be ignored.

What we’re learning now is how tight the linkages between a child being exposed to some sort of abuse and all the misery that flows from that. And given those tight linkages it is well worth spending quite a bit of time and money undoing them. Bill English

The links between children growing up in an abusive environment and the long-term effects have been well documented. Misery and the lifelong consequences of complex family life don’t just impact on the individual child; they flow on to society as a whole, creating considerable financial and social costs.

But the Children’s Action Plan is limited when it comes to addressing the complex social conditions that create poverty. Nor will it help most of the 24% of children living below the 60% income poverty line, the 17% of New Zealand children living in families who regularly go without items most New Zealanders would consider essential, or the 10% of all Kiwi children living in severely impoverished conditions. In short, the Plan will make little real difference to child poverty and child well-being in New Zealand.

Targeting at risk children implies social services are reactionary measures delivered to complex families, rather than social support that ensures all children in all families can have the best start in life. Malnutrition, inadequate clothing and footwear, degenerate housing and lack of social interaction and support may not register on any PRM radar. While it is important to support those who need specialist social services intervention, that intervention would be less necessary if broader, preventative social measures formed the basis of our welfare system.

Targeting at risk children reinforces stigmatism of the very children it is attempting to support. Such punitive, reactionary measures will inevitably lead to more and more children being removed from their families. The assumption implied is that child abuse or neglect is a treatable disease, fixed through targeting individual children within individual families while ignoring the extensive poverty faced by too many families.

Poverty is the predominant context in which children can come to harm, both because of the stresses parents face in hardship and the dangerous environment caused by material deprivation.[1] Intergenerational poverty not only traps children in life cycles of deprivation, but it also fosters ill health, emotional instability, negative behaviours and a deeply ingrained lack of self-worth. The most effective way to reduce the incidence of child abuse and the over-arching cost of post traumatic intervention is to reduce the occurrence of poverty.

The social investment government refers to is not investment in children or childhood but rather allocating funding to increase the level of monitoring and surveillance of families before going on to treat individual ‘pathology’. The government’s welfare reforms will legitimize the monitoring and surveillence of beneficiaries, for those already marginalized. In that respect it can be seen as a continuation of the cycle of poverty.

Targeting an individual child, in an individual family, with an individual history and an individual current situation may help to bring attention to the ‘problems’ that child faces. This model offers the pretence of state participation in community welfare when in fact the elephant in the room is poverty and inequality. When we look at the broader context we can see that abuse and/or poverty are part of a system of social inequality. Families are not the sole generators of child abuse; in fact our policies are contributing to an ongoing cycle of poverty experienced by our most vulnerable children.

Over the past three decades the welfare system in New Zealand has broken down and it obvious that the system itself is in need of a comprehensive review. The approach adopted by government aimed at simply reducing the number of beneficiaries is focussed on the symptoms rather than addressing the underlying issues. It is not feasible to return to the welfare arrangements that characterised this country’s approach to social policy and made New Zealander a leader among comparative welfare states for much of the post world war two period. Likewise if we are serious about child poverty it is not feasible to implement policies that focus on a targeted group and ignore the extent of child poverty in New Zealand today. Unfortunately for most of New Zealand’s poorest children the governments Children’s Action Plan won’t alleviate child poverty let alone attend to the wider social causes of child poverty and child abuse. While some children and families need additional and special support and assistance, an effective policy for New Zealand’s children requires a genuine commitment to prevent child poverty to ensure that all children have the best possible chance of a fulfilling life. We cannot afford to do less.

[1] See for example Leroy H. Pelton, The continuing role of material factors in child maltreatment and placement. (2014).


Categories: Poverty, Social security
Mike O'Brien
About the author

Mike O'Brien

Associate Professor - University of Auckland
Mike O’Brien is Associate Professor at the School of Counselling, Human Services and Social Work at the University of Auckland and social security spokesperson for the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG). Dr. O’Brien has written extensively on poverty and social security issues and co-edited CPAG’s flagship publication, Our children our choice: priorities for policy (2014). He has contributed to a number of CPAG publications and chaired the Alternative Welfare Working group in 2011 which produced two reports on welfare reform setting out alternative strategies to those proposed by the Government’s Welfare Working Group. Dr. O’Brien is a Board member at Te Waipuna Puawai and the Auckland City Mission and is a member of the Impacts of Poverty and Exclusion policy group for the New Zealand Council of Christian Social Services.