COVID is a reason to do more, not less, for our children

Judge Andrew Becroft, NZ Children’s Commissioner

We can be proud of our children and young people right now.

They are an over one-million-strong team who, for much of this year, gave up their playgrounds, their schooling, their interactions with friends, and for some in already struggling families, access to the basics, while our country was in lockdown.

About 150,000 of our children were living in significant material hardship before the pandemic hit.

The period of lockdown was particularly hard for those families in poverty, struggling with mental health issues, facing the challenges of parenting alone and with over-crowded housing.

The burden of the lockdown was not equally shared, and its long-term impacts certainly won’t be equally shared.

So, now that we are taking steps towards recovery, let’s look forward to a fairer future for our children. COVID should be a reason to do more for our children, not an excuse to do less. In the words of the great Dame Whina Cooper:

“Take care of our children. Take care of what they hear, take care of what they see, take care of what they feel. For how the children grow so will be the shape of Aotearoa.”

Listening to our tamariki

Children and young people will have some good ideas and suggestions for how to get New Zealand moving. We must seek their views. After all, it is their right to be heard.

And because our under-18-year olds cannot exercise their right to be heard through traditional ways like voting, it is our duty as adults in their lives to vote wisely with a clear eye on their best interests.

In 2018, we asked more than 6000 children and young people what they believe children in New Zealand need to live a good life. They told us they want more action to reduce child poverty. They want ‘the basics’, such as a home, an education and a safe community.

But they want more than just a minimum standard of living. They want the systems which support them to support their whānau too.

These children’s voices are now strongly echoed in the excellent 2019 Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy. This government, for the first time ever, has prioritised the wellbeing of children and young people. I believe this Strategy is a once-in-a-generation platform to get things right for our children. It is hugely significant to have a long-term, cross-government strategy to improve child and youth wellbeing. It’s world-leading.

Now that we have this Strategy, which I hope can outlast any government of the day, we have to demand systems change for our children and young people.

Looking ahead

We are currently going through a very difficult time as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Many New Zealanders have lost jobs and income. Our unemployment rate is predicted to rise significantly.

The wage subsidy and the income relief payments provided an immediate, high-trust model of support for New Zealand families. This was really good. But when those payments run out, parents without jobs will be forced onto benefits.

Not only is the benefit well below both of these income supports, children will be penalised because their parents are no longer eligible for the in-work tax credit.

I would like to see the equivalent tax credit continue for children who most need it, irrespective of whether their parents are in work or not. This is critical if we want to reduce reliance on foodbanks and other assistance.

There is also now an opportunity to change the funding of primary health care for all children and young people.

I would like to see the age limit for free medical and full dental care raised to 18. This would help reduce what is a significant barrier to families in accessing help when they need it.

I encourage the next government to invest in actions to empower communities and government agencies to follow the blueprint laid out in the Strategy.

We all want a New Zealand that is fairer and more equitable. And we have a proud history of supporting our children and young people directly. So, let’s continue our courageous and world-leading response to this virus.

I would urge you to talk to the children and young people in your lives and ask them how the experience of lockdown has been for them. Ask them what they think we should be doing to ensure they have a future where they can thrive and live good lives.

Our children and young people will inherit this system we re-build. They will also inherit its financial burden.

For this reason alone, they deserve our response to not just be shovel ready, but future ready.

His Honour Judge Andrew Becroft was appointed a District Court Judge in 1996. In 2001, he became the Principal Youth Court Judge of New Zealand; a role that he held until 2016 when he was appointed the Children’s Commissioner. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner is focused on ensuring Aotearoa New Zealand is a place where all children can thrive. 

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