Exploits of our favourite Social Development Minister

There’s an excellent editorial in the Herald on Sunday (or at least its online version). It’s really worth reading the whole thing. Paula Bennett’s excellent stewardship of the safety and health of the most vulnerable children in New Zealand is studied in detail, along with the (actually) good work of the Children’s Commissioner. He shows far more dedication and integrity than Ms Bennett seems to be even vaguely capable of.

Ms Bennett was challenged on measures of child poverty on the debating floor of parliament. After a back-and-forth about using international standards, she decided to rely on MSD stats (we’ll leave alone any quibbles about their accuracy). According to her statistics,

The child poverty problem was not getting any worse, she insisted, and so there was no need to focus more attention on it.

The problem. Was not getting worse. If the best you can do, then get the hell out of the ministry. Not getting worse. That’s rather like saying someone on a ventilator is not any worse – he’s still bloody sick and what the hell are you doing about it?

“We are warming up their homes, we are getting them immunised, we are getting them into early childhood education, and we are making sure that we wrap support around those children who are most vulnerable, and that is making a difference.”

And how do you know it’s making a difference? What have you put in place to measure and monitor these things? Yeah. About that. Apparently there are too many measures of poverty and so (it appears) none are being used at all. Or at least none that the minister can (or will) quote.

And so these measures they’re talking about. Warmer homes? The only programme I know of (let me know if I’ve missed any) was a subsidy that could be claimed by home owners or landlords, that paid either a third or two thirds of the cost of insulation and eco-friendly heating. Now, find me a home owner that’s floating along under the poverty line, and tell him he can get a warmer home for the low, low price of three or four grand. Ha! Pull the other one. And a landlord generous enough to pay that? Yeah, that would be the landlord for nice places, people that own dumps don’t spend money on them.

Getting them immunised? Immunisation has always been free in New Zealand. More travelling clinics, more outreach nurses, things like that would be good. it’s important to keep immunisation levels high, to keep childhood diseases down to the absolute minimum. So, what is the ministry doing about it? Well, according the their website, they have lofty and vague goals, a couple of good ideas (and some rather impractical ones), but no information on what has been implemented or what the success rate is. But then, government departments are very good at being opaque, so this could mean that they’ve had every child born since the policy was set immunised, or it could mean that the plan has been neatly filed in the trash can. I wish I could come up with something more concrete. One question that springs to mind, though – how does this fill hungry bellies? It’s a good idea, even a great one. But it’s not really doing much for kids who don’t know what a square meal is.

Getting them into ECE. Now that’s a curly one. I suspect that this is referring to the new requirement for sole parents to have their child in ECE from when they turn three. I have no idea how solo mums manage this requirement. Perhaps kindergartens or playcentres, because daycare-type places are staggeringly expensive. That’s good, I guess, although I object to the forced nature of it. But what about the children of the working poor? They tend to get forgotten in MSD’s focus on beneficiaries. It’s understandable, really – working people are not really their domain. It’s likely that the working poor never crossed Ms Bennett’s mind when she started this spiel.

So I have grave doubts about the things Ms Bennett referred to. Their existence also has no relevance whatsoever to the fact that she has no idea how many children living in poverty, because she refuses to use any recognised measure to determine it. That is not good enough. And to say that it’s not getting worse is more than not good enough. It’s neglecting children that should be one of the primary groups the ministry works for. It’s sickening.

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