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.