Poverty keeps kids home from school

The Rotorua Daily Post ran an article yesterday about the impact of poverty on poor kids. Some of what it says is just heartbreaking. One principal says

Parents who don’t have suitable food for their child’s lunch have been known to keep them at home so poverty does create a real barrier between children and their education.

These kids are undernourished in body and in mind, and it’s the shitty way we address both beneficiaries and the working poor that puts them there. It’s just awful that in a country with as much wealth as ours, we actually have kids in this situation. The government promises over and over again to address child poverty, while leaving the minimum wage too low for a family to live on, and setting benefit rates even lower. Our approach to poor people is punitive, particularly those with children. Being poor is a character flaw in the model we use, because good people get an education and a good job. It’s only people who don’t bother to get a qualification, who don’t try hard enough, or who don’t really need the work (teenagers, for example) who get minimum wage jobs. As for beneficiaries? Well! people like that are just lazy! and they shouldn’t have kids, even more than minimum wage workers. It’s just irresponsible to procreate if you’re not financially secure enough to raise them.

These attitudes are the kind of prejudice that leaves kids hungry, cold, and without much hope of things getting better. Kids that are not getting to school because they’re too poor, who are getting to school but going hungry and unable to concentrate, who are chronically unwell from the diseases of poverty, are not going to learn the way rich kids are. They’re going to struggle, and in all likelihood they are going to perpetuate the cycle of poverty. It’s called a cycle for a reason – it just keeps going around and around and it’s so hard to break out of.

Many of these children – 52% of decile one students, according to the Ministry of Education statistics – are living in overcrowded homes, where their is little privacy, little space, and more chance for the spread of illness. Many of these homes are poorly insulated, and in the winter are damp and cold. Sickness is more common in the homes of the poor, and the government needs to take some responsibility for that. Phasing out the insulation subsidy for rental properties and refusing to pass the rental warrant of fitness has condemned many to sub-stander housing. Sure, it makes things cheaper for landlords, who are part of the current government’s core constituency, but it’s at the expense of the poor and vulnerable.

One of the more shocking parts of the article is the proposal by one of the principals interviewed to build a respite house for children on school grounds for when their home life became “a little chaotic”. Is this idea restricted to one low-decile principal because he’s more enterprising than most? Is it a low-decile problem, or is it more widespread but only talked about because this is a low-decile school and reality hits harder there?

I can think of a few things that can go on for a kid that might make respite a good option. Parental breakups, illness, a special needs sibling, all these things are fairly normal and common enough that there is a legitimate need for respite care for kids. What are people going to think when ‘a little chaotic’ comes up? Abuse, neglect, all the terrible things that happen to poor kids. It’s a little tale of prejudice all on its own – poor kids are prone to bad parenting, and that just doesn’t happen in well-off families. I tell you, it does. It’s just not seen or acted upon.

Poverty does awful things to kids, and as a society we are responsible for a lot of that. We can, of course, do better. Will we? Well, maybe not.

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