Having the greatest impact on children's lives is about filling the gaps
We have identified six interrelated areas where your investment could make the most difference to children.
The six areas are: family, health, education, housing, community, and having basic needs met.
Children must have all these needs met if they are to do well and successfully transition into adulthood. If one area of need is not met, the child is less likely to thrive.
Some of the effects of poverty on these six areas are outlined below, with examples of solutions to illustrate how you can think about solving the issues in your community of interest.
All children need stable nurturing parents. Community groups play a key role in helping parents be better parents.
Poverty causes stress and stressed parents are more likely to have mental health issues (e.g. anxiety, depression and aggression), use more authoritarian parenting styles and/or be less involved in their children’s lives. Stable and nurturing parents are likely to be less violent towards children, have better emotional attachment to their children and support the development required for language acquisition through reading, singing and talking to their infants.
Like all parents, those living in poverty should be supported to develop and practise nurturing parenting, which can reduce some of the worse effects of poverty on children. Ideally, this would start in ante-natal classes but it is also valuable through post-birth courses or counselling. Sustained parenting and mentoring programmes are useful at any stage of child development, while one-off seminars are less helpful.
Filling gaps in health care is something givers can help with. There is a strong relationship between poverty and poor health in children, due to poor housing, nutrition, and stress (as described above). Children growing up in poverty face multiple risks that include being:
- more likely to die of Sudden Unexplained Death in Infancy (SUDI);
- three times more likely to be sick and require hospital care, particularly due to infectious diseases; and
- more likely to have problems in adulthood, including higher rates of heart disease, alcohol and drug addiction, mental health issues and worse dental health.
While government provides core health services, communities are often called on to reduce the barriers for people in accessing those services. Examples include transport, advocacy, translation and coordinating health and social services within hubs in schools.
Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to perform poorly at school. Children in poor areas are more likely to go to school hungry, move house and schools multiple times and live in overcrowded homes with inadequate space to do homework. Solutions to these problems include school food programmes, before-and after-school homework clubs, computers in homes/schools, desks in homes and social supports for engaging parents in school life.
Schools can also offer safe, convenient community hubs where children’s services (health, social, relationship counselling, etc) can be provided.
Children’s learning goes backwards during school holidays and this is worse for children in poverty than those from higher income families. Offering better quality, free, holiday programmes to children who cannot normally afford to go will reduce their educational disadvantage during long school breaks.
The increasing cost of housing means some low income families pay more than half their income on rent. This can leave little for paying power bills. Families suffering ‘fuel poverty’ fail to heat their homes properly, resulting in damp and mould. The cheapest housing often lacks efficient heating and filtered ventilation, and may have little or no insulation, which exacerbates this problem for families in fuel poverty.
Housing quality is particularly important for babies and pre-schoolers as they spend most of their time at home. Poor quality housing is a cause of many health issues for children, such as respiratory illnesses and spread of infectious diseases. Overcrowding means children don’t have space to study, do not sleep well so are tired in class, may have to share beds which spreads infectious diseases, and they may be absent from school frequently due to illness.
Providing advice to parents on how to ventilate homes and remove mould can help reduce the damage done by poor heating and damp. Insulation programmes and heating installation help improve home warmth, which is known to reduce illness in children.
Providing advice and materials to help people make their homes safer for babies and children, e.g. child-proof catches on cupboards with poisons, stair gates to prevent falls, a bed for every child, etc are ways that communities can contribute materially to children and help reduce injury and illness.
Communities and community-based organisations can be very responsive to local needs, and sometimes provide more effective support for local families than central government. Strengthening the fabric of our communities means funding the social services, supports and activities that families need and want, in the locations where families live, shop and play.
Important infrastructure for community supports include: kohanga reo, schools and other early childhood education providers, marae, churches, community halls and sports clubs. Children living in poorer neighbourhoods are less likely to have recreation facilities nearby, less likely to have ‘walkable’ streets and/or public transport. Advocating to local government for these assets will help improve outcomes for resident children.
Children regularly miss out on the things they need when the family income is low, because parents are making tough budgeting choices. While benefit rates, minimum wage levels, tax settings and other key income sources are mostly controlled by central government, there are other ways people can improve incomes or resources of families with children.
Training and better job opportunities can improve family income through access to higher paid jobs. Low-income families are often vulnerable to debt. For these families, no or low interest loans (micro-finance) may be an important part of the solution. In some cases it is practical to supplement income with the actual goods needed, for example direct rent payments, electricity vouchers or food stamps. This has the benefit of reassuring givers that the support goes directly to fill children’s needs, and cannot be used for other purposes.
When some children miss out on what other children have - such as belonging to a sports team, learning music, or going to community events, they can lose self esteem and hope. Givers can notice these things and fill the gaps by providing subsidies, or free places to those children who would otherwise miss out.