Sunday, April 13, 2008

How do rich countries manage to keep so many children in poverty?

How do rich countries manage to keep so many children in poverty? And why don't governments ask this question more often and more urgently?

Last week I was able to spend two days looking after Kate Green, the chief executive of the UK Child Poverty Action Group, during her visit to Wellington. She's in New Zealand as the guest of New Zealand's Child Poverty Action Group, to which I belong.

On Monday 14 April she's giving a public talk in Auckland, at 7 pm, at the University of Auckland Conference Centre. As part of that, she'll be looking at how the UK Labour government has tackled child poverty. It's a fascinating story, with some important lessons for New Zealand.

Britain is far from being a poor country. Yet when Labour came to power, it had the worst child poverty in Europe - 4.2 million children. Now it's improved to fourth worst.

New Zealand isn't exactly poor either. But its wealth is far from evenly spread. In the last decades of the 20th century New Zealand had the fastest growth in income and wealth inequality in the OECD.

Not suprisingly, child poverty grew rapidly too. It started to shrink as the economy improved, employment grew, and the Labour government here did sensible things like raising the minimum wage and bringing back income-related rents for state housing.

But despite all these improvements, between 2000 and 2004 the proportion of all children in severe hardship and significant hardship increased by a third, to 26 percent.

That's over one in four children - rather too many, in fact, for their poverty to be simply the result of bad parenting.

But there's very little discussion in the media about what the real causes of child poverty are. It's far easier to individualise the problem, and put all the blame on parents for doing the wrong things or not doing the right things. I'd be very interested to know what readers of this blog think, before I write about what Kate has to say.

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