More growth – or more redistribution. These are the two main themes offered into the child poverty debate by parties across the political spectrum in New Zealand. Both are necessary to some degree. However both will also fall well short of making a significant and sustainable difference to poverty in our nation.
The reason is that both approaches are economics based – but what has driven the increase in poverty in New Zealand over the last 40 years is not related to economics. Over that time we have had governments with both centre-right and centre-left economic programmes. Poverty remains.
If economic growth was the answer then we would expect to see real progress. In 1997 our annual GDP was $94billion. Today it is $230billion. The economic cake has grown. Poverty remains.
If redistribution was the answer we would also expect to see progress. The size of the cake pieces being shared have grown with a major expansion in spending on public services. In 1997 we spent $5billion on public health. This year we will spend $14billion. Annual education spending was $5billion and is now $12billion. Social welfare was $12billlion and is now $22billion every year.
Even allowing for inflation and population growth, all the above figures show a significant increase in real GPD and public spending per capita. And yet poverty remains and indeed has become entrenched.
Economic prescriptions of whatever colour are clearly not going to solve this issue.
As it happens in 1997 we were having a national conversation on poverty. At the time I contributed to the debate via the New Zealand Herald – Poverty – it’s not a lack of jobs, it’s a lack of fathers. Sadly, 17 years on the analysis remains relevant. It will remain relevant in another 17 years unless our leaders have started the process of rebuilding family life in New Zealand.
And that is not about economics – it’s about values.