imageHere at Redline, we’ve consistently pointed out problems with the concept of child poverty.  In particular, that it’s not that the children are poor, but that the adults, their parents, are poor and that this poverty is the result of low pay and particularly low benefit levels.  Below is an article that appeared at Two Arab Girls, a site that describes itself as “Unapologetic diatribes, rants and musings of two angry Aotearoa-based Arab women”.  The article deserves a very wide readership.

2009 protest against low pay

For years now, and thanks to decades of commendable work by groups such as Child Poverty Action Group, the term ‘child poverty’ has increasingly emerged in my facebook feed, frequented our newspapers and dripped from the lips of earnest soap-boxing politicians traversing campaign trails. A few weeks ago even, our very own centre-right Prime Minister announced that “tackling child poverty” was set to be an important part of his third-term agenda.

For the groups who have rallied for awareness on the issue, this mainstream traction is a benchmark of success. For me, it confirms my longstanding belief that a linear focus on “child poverty” can all too easily become reproduced and exploited for sinister ends.

This is not to say that I don’t think we should advocate for our children currently growing up in obscenely unjust levels of deprivation, the fucking opposite actually. We need to be fighting for the welfare of our youngest members of society tirelessly. I just believe creating the future those children so desperately need and deserve requires a different kind of advocacy and agenda.

Before I talk about what I do think our children need, I think it’s important we actually consider what it means to even talk about “children”, especially when the word is referenced around so exhaustively everyone who has ever had an agenda about anything.

Obviously, as far as social convention is concerned, it’s an imperative to “care” about children. Every single politician in parliament will tell you people need to “think of the children” and will also regurgitate popular tropes for daysssss about the young being “the future”. I just wanna call bullshit on that.

Strangely enough, when I returned to uni and told people I was training to work as an Early Childhood teacher, looks of derision and disinterest would slide across most faces with impressive speed. “I imagine you doing something a bit more challenging/ important etc” people would respond. People weren’t remotely shy about undermining the importance of working with children in the most critical period of their development. To me, the widespread devaluation of the importance of Early Childhood educators work is just one litmus that perhaps not everyone is as convinced children are as precious as lip service might indicate.

I worked & qualified as an Early Childhood teacher because I love, love, love working with children. Yup, partly from an innately (innate to me, not all women of course) maternal reaction induced by chubby faces and gurgling baby laughs. But also, beyond the sentimentalism, cause I believe resolutely that how we think about, respond to, and teach our youngest children says everything about our society and our aspirations for transforming it too. Under 5s deserve quality, they deserve professionals and they deserve to be taken dead seriously as important members and participants in our society.

Children don’t exist to be exploited via emotive tag lines and utilised for disingenuous political ends.

It’s obvs this same knowledge of the critical and pivotal nature of children’s emotional, physical and neural development in their earliest years that underpins a lot of the “child poverty” argument. As in, hunger and deprivation are bad for young children because x, y, z research shows it effects them for the rest of their lives. I agree wholeheartedly. But there is more.

At its heart though, the inception of “child poverty” as a populist concept provided a way for those genuinely concerned about the detrimental nature of grievous inequality to promote some compassion towards the ‘victims of inequality’ in a way few people could respond disparagingly to. After all, everyone cares so much about the welfare of children, right?

The body of research that proves the negative health, education and mental effects of growing up in economically excluded communities and families is swelling by the day. But do we really need to prove that poverty is a shitty start in life for a kid? Don’t many children and adults already live with this reality every single day?

A lot of the child focused policy solutions advocated for through the “child poverty” research canon are reforms that no one should be sniffing at; things like feeding kids in schools, free health care and services for little humans, decent housing standards, accessible quality early childhood education and such like.

And yes, in the absence of a full scale revolution and destruction of a system that puts profit before people, I agree that breakfast for kids in schools is a bloody worthwhile reform. I’ve worked with children so hungry that learning, growing and reaching their full potential was an impossibility.

For me it is not the reforms that present an issue, it is the mindset that the idea of child poverty necessitates. I appreciate that people employ the term child poverty because they want to advance the quality of life for our kids. And yes, “child poverty” is a cause that is more difficult for people to visibly callous about than say, shameful benefit levels.

The issue with the narrative is however, that at whims of those vested in a violently unequal status quo, it can ultimately be co-opted to reinforce the myth of a conveniently blameless poverty. Child poverty is an ‘accident’ or a sad anomaly that exists in a vacuum. As if it is only children, as oppose to whole families, who experience the pain and violence of their engineered economic exclusion.

Worse still, it allows for all of the stigma used to scapegoat and blame the poor for the crime of being marginalised by things like structural unemployment or colonisation, to carry on totally ignored and unchallenged. It allows people to quietly, or even explicitly, blame parents and other individuals for not meeting childrens needs. When the exclusion of certain children is in fact inherently structural. It frames including these children in society as a charitable act dispensed at mercy from our benevolent and generous ruling elite.

Child poverty promotes the idea of a deserving and an undeserving poor, children of course being the former. And while I agree that if anything, we should prioritise our children in our political thinking, I do not think that this can happen in tandem with the continued denigration of their own parents right to live in dignity too.

No one deserves to be poor. And it should not go unacknowledged that many adults living in poverty in Aotearoa today experienced so-called child poverty themselves. Does surviving years of childhood repression and reaching adulthood render people less deserving of economic justice? The legacies of dispossession, economic hardship and institutional marginalisation are inter-generational.

Now that the term “child poverty” has entered into the lexicon of our right-wing Prime Minister we need to remember that politicians will always feign caring about children. Often, said feigning will be part of maintaining popular support in order to pursue a broader agenda that will certainly impede the futures of so many of our young. The ideology at the heart of the the National party requires the poverty of many to enable burgeoning the wealth of a few.

Unless we are willing to grapple with capitalism itself, inequity and lack of opportunities for both children and adults at the bottom is a matter of course.

On the one hand we can hear John Key discussing the need to tackle child poverty, but at the same time, his govt is unapologetically entrenching the very economic system which is pushing families deeper and deeper into ghettoisation and hopelessness by throwing parents off the benefit in their droves.

One thing that always struck me in my teaching, was how perceptive children are to the conventions of our social world. As well as their propensity to quickly identify their place within the broader hierarchies of it, they are sponges immersed in a toxic status quo. As James Baldwin astutely remarked; “children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” Children asertain from us how things should be. And they can often only aspire to their social reality, so watching their parents experience the humiliation of bills unpaid, empty fridges and deeply exploitative, dangerous and shitty casualised work is obviously an emotional damaging experience for any young mind.

Children themselves will recognise that their poverty is not happening in isolation from the rest of their families. Children have consciously explicitly told me their families and parents are poor, but i’ve certainly never heard a child tell me they’re experiencing “child poverty.”

So it’s important to keep in mind that even if children were to be fed in schools, the messages which they learn regarding how the world values them will not remain sheltered from the hardship they witness inflicted on parents, grandparents and sections of broader society.

Children are inherently capable of incredible collaboration, collectivism and empathy when such tendencies remain undisturbed by prevailing notions of self-interest, or are encouraged and demonstrated by large through their environment and role models.

If you don’t believe me, you’ve never seen a large group of two year olds rebelliously conspire together to flood a bathroom to incite sheer delight in the faces of their peers. Or you’ve never had an 18 month old sitting on your hip insist on feeding you dozens of consecutive strawberries dotingly before they’ve even eat one themselves.

To me, a child focused political agenda does not mean silence on the fact that poverty hurts and/or is literally killing our kids, but nor does it mean silence on the main causality of their said poverty; which is capitalism. After all, capitalism necessitates the exploitation and collective deprivation of huge sections of society, irrespective of their age and vulnerability.

I cannot and will not talk about child poverty, to me there is no such outlying phenomenon. Yes, poverty disproportionately hurts our kids, but not just materially in health and education- this system is robbing our children of their full potential, from birth to death as it stands. It teaches some children their parents and their siblings are undeserving of dignity. It teaches them that the best reality they can possibly hope for, is to be one of those at the top, exploiting.

The spectre of child poverty portrays a social ill that holds no one to account, or worse, shafts parents with the blame. I can’t ascribe to an alternative vision which is limited to keeping children fed while they remain cute and doe-eyed, only to grow-up hungry and hated in their teenage years. And I have no doubt we will see more politicians use a false empathy around child poverty to divert critique from their wholesale deepening of an inequitable vision for our future.

Poverty is not some disease which we need to cure children of in their early years. Rather, under capitalism, the rich are a parasite and this system is denying entire communities and families of opportunity and hope.

For me, advocating for our children means demanding a system where neither their present, or future, contain the possibilities of hunger and hardship. Futures where they can visibly see that opportunities to thrive and participate in society await them, meaningfully. For too many of our kids right now, aspirations for a life beyond poverty are a collective impossibility. As long as we fail to address the root causes of poverty, as long as we reframe and de-politicise their suffering to make it digestible, we fail to be honest about reality. As long as we fail to challenge an economic system which will pillage our resources and literally exploit foreign and local men, women and children to death, we’re failing them in their first five years, and the following seventy too.

  1. Ben H says:

    An excellent argument. I too have been troubled by how many, even on the Left, have given an uncritical emphasis to ‘child poverty’.

    I especially agree with this section of your article: “Child poverty promotes the idea of a deserving and an undeserving poor, children of course being the former. And while I agree that if anything, we should prioritise our children in our political thinking, I do not think that this can happen in tandem with the continued denigration of their own parents right to live in dignity too.” Yes, it certainly sidelines and denigrates mothers.

    Another aspect to ‘child poverty’ campaigns is that they provide a forum for bureaucratic leaders to promote themselves and run campaigns undemocratically. It is much easier for bureaucrats to remain unchallenged when they claim to ‘advocate’ for children, as children’s marginal position in society makes it much harder for them to speak back.

    Ben H