Book Review: Child Poverty in New Zealand, by Jonathan Boston & Simon Chapple

This book is available from today in bookstores nationwide. 

“Child poverty” is one of thosecv_child_poverty_in_Nz things that it is hard to support. But whenever I hear the
term used it is to “support” someone’s case for their special interest or policy. So it is immensely valuable to see this in-depth, and broad-ranging, survey of the problem, and possible options for its relief.

Perhaps the biggest problem in dealing with this topic is revealed in the back-cover blurb: “Between 130,000 and 285,000 NZ children live in poverty, depending on the measure used.” That’s quite a range – how should we determine the number? And that is just the first question. What do we mean by poverty? Sub-Saharan African conditions? Is “poverty” a euphemism for parental neglect, or a result of it? How can we reduce or eliminate child poverty, and at what cost? What effects does this poverty have on children, and their families, and “the rest of us”?

The authors take a comprehensive look at these, and other, questions in three parts which I’d paraphrase as “The current situation”, “Options to reduce poverty” and “Coping with its impacts”. An additional chapter titled “Investing for the Future” draws some conclusions.
This book is not just an overview. Certainly, it covers a lot of ground, but in depth, and with evidence. Lots of facts, statistics, graphs, and charts buttress the arguments throughout.

Both authors were members of the Expert Advisory Group on Solutions to Child Poverty established by the Children’s Commissioner in 2012, and they have of course drawn on the papers and discussions which came out of that group. As the title of the group suggests, there are solutions: reforming aspects of the employment, tax and benefit systems for example. These solutions are evaluated, and both costs and benefits considered. The idea that I personally found most enlightening was that the elimination of child poverty is something that can be incentivised (the authors’ word), with flow-on benefits to many other areas of the economy. In other words, the problem gives us some opportunities.

The book is authoritative, and quite accessible, although at times the reader has to work hard. I was grateful for the glossary of terms, to give some precision around words which have a technical meaning as well as a commonplace usage. It is impossible to write about social policy without using lots of data, and the sources for that data are often given in end-notes; I found that I needed to keep a bookmark in the Notes section so that I could assess what was being said in the text, to gain reassurance that I wasn’t just reading uninformed opinions. This reassurance is important to inform the debate, and lift it out of the political swamp.

Overall, this is a hopeful book, with its conclusion that “New Zealand has the necessary resources to reduce child poverty, and equitable and efficient ways to secure these resources are available”. The book finds these means to suit those of both centre-left and centre-right political persuasions. It deserves a wide audience.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Child Poverty in New Zealand
Jonathan Boston & Simon Chapple
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9781927247860