Ahead of the New Zealand General Election on 20 September, we are publishing material from a Christchurch-based group of Christians suggesting a ‘Gospel Manifesto’. Experts will focus Christian voters on the teaching of Jesus and the local and global situation in which we live.
Priority 1: Every Child Counts
Matthew’s Gospel records Jesus saying that the children should be allowed to come to him and not be hindered from doing so. In this and other contexts, children were to be given a special and promoted place in the society in which they lived. Here then, lies the genesis for reflecting on how well we provide (or fail to provide) for children and their needs in contemporary society. While New Zealand does well in providing for many of its children, there are far too many for whom our care and provision is woefully inadequate.
This is most clearly illustrated in ensuring all children have the basics they need in such fundamental areas as food, clothing, educational opportunity, health care access, and the opportunity to participate in the recreational activities their peers enjoy. Irrespective of how we measure it, around one in five (20 per cent) of New Zealand’s children live below the poverty line. While, for a small amount of these children, this may be the result of not spending money appropriately or wisely, the vast majority live in families that do not receive enough money. The majority of these families receive a benefit of some kind. However, there is also a very significant group (around 40 per cent) that are in households where somebody is in paid work. Maori and Pacific children are significantly over represented among children living in households below the poverty line.
By themselves, children are unable to change their own circumstances—they depend on what their parents do and what we do as a society do to ensure that all children are adequately provided for. Concretely, this means that if we are to improve the income of families with children so poverty levels are reduced, we will need to do three things:
What we do to improve the lives of these children and what we demand of our political leaders in policies that reduce child poverty will be the most important test for this year’s election.
Children have only one opportunity to enioy and learn from the experience of being a child. As a society, we can do a great deal to make that experience the best possible for all children, supporting and encouraging parents or carers to provide for children, and demand effective policies from politicians. Phrases such as ‘every child counts’ and ‘no child left behind’ have been expressed frequently in recent years. This year’s election is an opportunity to demand that these phrases be given real and concrete meaning for all children. The critical place to begin is with policies and programmes that reduce child poverty.
The New Testament gospel message about the special place of children in New Zealand society in 2014 contains two closely related elements:
The question we all need to ask of all policies is: how do these policies treat children and reduce child poverty?
Michael O’Brien is Associate Professor, School of Counselling, Human Services and Social Work at the University of Auckland