Editorial: Feed the children

In Features

Print Share
3rd September, 2012 5 comments
New Zealand Listener - Feed the children


Amid the disturbing new statistics on the gap between the haves and the have-nots, one simple idea for fostering equality stands out for its sheer common sense: school lunches. The Expert Advisory Group on Child Poverty has given a list of recommendations to the Children’s Commissioner, but the simplest and most cost efficient idea is to extend the existing patchwork of free-lunch services to all low-decile schools. For $3.3 million a year – effectively small-change at the bottom of the public purse – the Food for Kids model, which provides a nutritious daily lunch at 223 schools, could be extended to all 861 low-decile primary and intermediate schools. It is hard to overstate the difference this would make. We know that hungry children don’t learn. They can be disruptive and disengaged. And yet a compelling consensus emerged from paediatricians who supported the efforts of chef Jamie Oliver to improve school lunches in British schools: a single nutritious meal a day can make a huge difference to a child’s physical and emotional well-being. It’s hard to see how this could fail to lift children’s achievement at school. We would see the evidence within a year. And this tiny investment would have cost-saving spin-offs in justice and welfare.

We already know that when parents on low incomes fail to manage their budget, it severely affects their children’s nutrition and health. Charitable groups, with some help from the Government, have done creditable work to fill the gaps, but it is surely time for taxpayers to step up. The lunches need not be elaborate or expensive: a wholesome sandwich, baked beans on toast, a milk drink, some fresh fruit. It is pointless to persist, as some critics do, with the argument that feeding a child is the parents’ responsibility. The Government is powerless, beyond trialling a few radical new moves like drug-testing of beneficiaries, to turn deadbeat parents into good parents. Meanwhile, children go hungry. If only the rest of the Children’s Commissioner-fostered report was so beautifully logical – or the claims and statistics surrounding the equality gap in New Zealand so easy to analyse and address. There have, for instance, been claims that only half the wealthy pay income tax. But this is not as meaningful a statistic as it appears. A very low number of high earners pay tax through the PAYE system. But the Government has received more revenue since it increased GST to 15%. The wealthy also pay other taxes, such as on trust income.

There is no doubt that income inequality is expanding. Extrapolations from the Household Income Survey show the gap declined for a couple of years up to 2010, but has since increased. This is a cause for concern, but hardly surprising given the global financial crisis. Recessions always hit poorer people harder. The gap’s growth has brought the inevitable calls for more progressive income tax. But tellingly, when the top tax rate was increased to 39% in 2001, it resulted in those in the top tax bracket paying appreciably less tax. Punitive tax on the skilled workforce will only accelerate our devastating rate of emigration. However, by generally accepted measurement, 20% of children are living in what we regard as poverty – two out of five, despite having working parents. This is not third-world poverty, but entails kids going cold and hungry, something no New Zealander wants. With this in mind, the report to the Children’s Commissioner recommended the restoration of a universal child payment, à la the Family Benefit. Although even a small amount of extra money can make a great difference in a poor household, universal benefits enrich the non-needy, with no guarantee that the needy will spend the money on their children.

The way forward is more likely to be through targeting benefits directly to the child, through education, school meals, free doctors’ visits, immunisation programmes, home-insulation subsidies and the like. Politicians will continue to make their legitimate yet contradictory claims about what the Household Income Survey tells us about equality in New Zealand. But right now there are cold, sick and hungry children who deserve direct state action, not as a matter of politics or ideology but as a matter of humanity.

3rd September, 2012 5 comments

Comments Skip to Comment form

5 Responses to “Editorial: Feed the children”

  1. Lee Sep 12 2012, 4:22pm

    The following quote; "We already know that when parents on low incomes fail to manage their budget, it severely affects their children’s nutrition and health." This quote sounds definitively akin to blame. Shame on you low income New Zealanders for trying your best to keep a roof over your heads, pay the bills and meet the ever rising cost of living. For doing your best on what little income you have. Try refrain from tarring all low income earners with the same brush, spare thought for those who have lost their jobs, or loved ones or any number of circumstances that could have resulted in a family trying to survive on a low income. Have you not been to the supermarket lately? If everyone were prime ministers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, pilots, editors or bank managers who do you think would mill the wood for their new houses, look after their children or make their morning latte, and those people may count as mid-range income earners these days! It would be wonderful if all schools low decile or not could provide lunches, a commendable idea for sure. However, it is insulting to throw the blanket of blame for a lack of food to financial mismanagement. You can't buy peanuts when moths fly out of your pocket my friend.
    Report Report
  2. god Sep 11 2012, 12:17pm

    When I think of Saint John, I don't think of John Key.
    Report Report
  3. Concerned Sep 4 2012, 7:25pm

    Income equality is not the issue. It's low wages and joblessness.

    We have become a low wage nation and it has happened so steadily and relentlessly since the days of Douglas et al that it appears to me to be policy for successive governments, Labour and National. For sure National's continuing attacks on the union movement has left most rank and file workers literally unable to meaningfully negotiate better wages with their employers. For them it's take it or leave it.

    Along with this goes the destruction of jobs. Today 230 mine workers in Greymouth are facing the loss of their jobs with Solid Energy, a government owned entity. We hear that Goodman Fielder are about to close 18 factories in Australia and New Zealand no doubt in pursuit of yet more profit. People haven't stopped eating bread. Once upon a time unemployment was sucked up by certain government departments. Unfortunately we are currently in possession of a government that would rather give tax cuts to the rich and lay people off to pay for it than provide employment for more.

    The focus goes on income equality because the better paid of us are much, much, much better paid. Some of us are paid salaries in one year that would take ordinary workers 40 years to earn. Again, that's not the problem. It's low wages and joblessness that's really the problem and only when we have a government that is prepared to tackle those two items will anything improve.

    Trickle down does not work, it didn't work for Thatcher or Reagan and it's not going to work here.
    Report Report
  4. Eliza Sep 3 2012, 2:36pm

    It's wonderful that a Listener editorial supports free lunches in schools but I wish the writer could have been a little less judgmental about the parents. Firstly, it is suggested that children go hungry "when parents on low incomes fail to manage their budget" I'd like to see the writer of this editorial attempting to manage his/her budget on the paltry amount of money a lot of people are receiving each week. Then the editorial writer suggests that "the Government is powerless . . . to turn deadbeat parents into good parent"s. Where did all these 'deadbeat' parents suddenly come from? We didn't used to have so many of them did we? Why are parents suddenly becoming so useless? The fact of the matter is its a lot harder out there than it used to be. The gap between rich and poor is getting wider, and wider, jobs are harder to find and harder to keep. The cost of living is rising relentlessly - Lots of people are struggling to get by. Most parents are doing the best they can. The writer calls for a little humanity to be extended to the children. I thoroughly agree - but I think it's high time we extended the same humanity to their parents and realise . . . there but for the grace of God go I.
    Report Report
  5. Helene Sep 3 2012, 11:20am

    "We already know that when parents on low incomes fail to manage their budget, it severely affects their children’s nutrition and health. " After spending two hideous years on the DPB after my partner suffered brain damage there was not enough money to eat well. Rent, power for our uninsulated home and basic food items cost all of my benefit. There was no money for clothing, shoes or doctors. We didn't have a car or phone or mobile phone. To provide school lunches for all school children would be the best decision we could make for the long term future of New Zealand.
    Report Report

Post a Comment

You must be to post a comment.

Switch to mobile version