Lizzie's Speech on Child Poverty

On April the 12th, 2016, Lizzie gave this speech at the Royal Society of New Zealand in Wellington, speaking at a Children's Rights Seminar held by the Child Wellbeing Network and Variety - The Children's Charity.

Tena koutou katoa.                            

When it comes to growing up in Aotearoa, New Zealand, each of us has our own concept of what that means. For some it’s summer holidays at the beach, playing sport on a Saturday morning, roast dinners on Sunday nights, school camps and maybe even a trip to the Gold Coast. For 305,000 Kiwi kids, however, who go without the basics on a daily basis, their Kiwi childhoods bear very little resemblance to the kind of upbringing many New Zealanders see as a birth right.

It’s hard for us to believe when we look around at the incredible country we live in that kids are going without. The national conversation about child poverty quickly devolves into comparisons with ‘real’ poverty in Africa – as if a Kiwi child going without the basics should be grateful that their struggle isn’t quite that of children living in unstable developing countries – and dehumanising notions of parental responsibility, often formed with very little knowledge of what it is actually like to experience financial hardship.

But lost in all the noise is the fact that today at schools all around the country, nearly one in three Kiwi kids may not have the stationery they need, the correct school uniform, lunch to eat, clean underwear, or a bed to sleep in tonight. Many will think I’m exaggerating when I talk about underwear and beds, but my work with Variety the Children’s Charity has opened my eyes to how bad the situation really is for some of our youngest citizens.

In one low decile school Variety was working with, a teacher in a new entrance class was teaching the alphabet. After getting her young charges to draw an apple for the letter A, she asked them to draw their beds for the letter B. As she walked around the classroom, she noticed that many of them had drawn what looked like a chair, and she wondered whether they were getting ahead of themselves and drawing chairs for the letter C. After a few quiet words with the children in question, she soon realised they were in fact drawing where they went to sleep at night. To those children, an armchair was a bed.

Living a life of deprivation without access to the basics can cause lasting damage to a child. It can mean doing badly at school, feeling isolated and different to their peers, having poor health, and ultimately not getting a good job later on in life.

Variety often works with kids whose sense of self-worth is severely compromised. These children have trouble developing new friendships because they feel like they look different. Often what they are wearing does not fit – it is too big or too small, they may suffer from things like school sores or rheumatic fever, or teenagers may not have access to basic things like deodorant. These things can have a huge effect on a child's self-esteem.

These children may not get the chance to join the school rugby team because they can’t afford the boots to play. Or they may get left behind when the rest of the class goes on camp. They miss out on experiences that many of us take for granted.

Many of the families Variety is working with are struggling to pay for basic living costs like rent, food and electricity. As we come into winter, extra expenses such as winter pyjamas, or a warm jacket are simply unaffordable. Heating or dehumidifying cold, damp houses is often well outside the budget. In one case a family of four were sleeping in a bunk bed in the living room which was easier to heat. The children’s asthma and eczema were unmanageable in these conditions. It’s simply not good enough for our kids.

When we talk about 305,000 kids living in poverty, the problem seems huge and insurmountable, but like most things, many hands make light work. In 2013, Variety launched the Kiwi Kid Sponsorship Programme. Variety Kiwi Kid Sponsorship provides children with basic essentials like warm clothing, bedding, shoes and school stationery. Having access to these things means a huge amount to children who are used to going without.

Through the programme, individual donors can sponsor a Kiwi child and be sure that the money is going to that child and will be tailored to their needs. So a child that might need glasses so she can see the board at school will have that opportunity. Or a sponsor can help a child who simply needs enough underwear to get through the week at school in clean clothes.

Variety is privileged to be working with a group of inspiring sponsors who want to personally help some of New Zealand’s most vulnerable children. If we keep working together, we can give Kiwi kids the good start in life they deserve. Change will happen when enough of us are demanding a better New Zealand for all Kiwis. Because when there are children living down the road that are hungry, we all know that isn’t the Kiwi way.

Personally, I’d love to live in a New Zealand where Variety could just throw the odd party for Kiwi kids, and that would be its only purpose. A country where all Kiwi children were well-fed with nutritious food, had clean, warm clothes and access to all of the basic things they need. At the moment, however, organisations like Variety are vital lifelines for Kiwi families. Without organisations like Variety, Kiwi kids would be much worse off.

And Variety can’t keep up. There are currently 400 kids on the waiting list for Kiwi Kid Sponsorship that Variety doesn’t have sponsors for. They predict that that list will grow into the thousands over the winter months. The numbers of Kiwi kids living in deprivation just keep going up, and it’s time to do something about it.

At a structural level, our current reality is unacceptable. As a 6-year-old in Rotorua in 1996 I watched some of my classmates searching through the rubbish bins for something to eat at lunch time. Some of them wore the same track suit every day to school with bare feet. 20 years on the situation is even worse, and it sickens me that as a country we’re not making our tamariki our top priority.

For every debate in which our children are thrown round like a political hot potatoes, another child gets rheumatic fever, goes to school hungry or sleeps in an armchair at night. For every parent that is blamed for spending money on booze to try to escape a reality in which they feel they are always failing their children, nothing is done to actually help those kids. While the blame is lumped on families, the vast majority of whom are doing their very best and not spending money on booze or smokes or anything other than what they need to care for their children, we’re absolving ourselves as a society from our responsibility to our fellow New Zealanders.

At the end of the day, it comes down to leadership, with those elected to represent the New Zealand people making a commitment to look after the young people who will be New Zealand’s future. If they could put aside their politicial differences to come up with a plan for superannuitants, which they did in 1993, why can’t they do the same for our kids?

Thank you so much for having me here today.

Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena tatou katoa.