Opinion: A new survey shows more than 200 schools believe poverty is worsening in their communities. We can’t become numb to how so many of New Zealand’s children are living, writes KidsCan founder and chief executive Julie Chapman.
I’m reading through pages and pages of heartbreak.
I’m reading hundreds of stories from teachers at KidsCan’s partner schools, describing what children in hardship are coping with.
It shines a light on the opportunities students are being robbed of as more of them work to support their families. It’s an insight into a world that children just shouldn’t be living in.
Our schools survey is not easy reading but it’s the confronting truth about how thousands of New Zealand children are living.
“There are too many heartbreaking stories to tell from our kura, unfortunately,” one teacher has written.
“I had one child tell me that they get a quarter of a sandwich for tea and look forward to coming to school so they can eat. They said they hate the holidays as that means there is no food.”
Another teacher wrote: “Student in Year 13 now has a scholarship to uni but will not be going as the household needs her to go to work. She says it is just for the year, but we all know, including her, that this won’t be the case. Too many stories and not enough space for the heartache that we see every day, and our students live.”
We asked our schools what children would arrive without in 2024.
“There are often students that do not bring anything to school, not even a school bag,” was a typical reply.
We asked if poverty was getting better or worse in their communities. Sixty-five per cent said it was getting worse, and a further 15% said it hadn’t moved.
Kids are feeling it. There are stories of only having instant noodles to eat and no electricity at home. Others have no shampoo, soap or toothpaste.
“I’ve had students in tears because they no longer fit uniforms and don’t want to ask their parents for a new one,” one teacher said.
Potential is being lost
Our survey asked how the cost of living crisis is affecting students’ education.
This is the part that really got our team because you can see too many kids’ potential being wiped out.
Forty-seven schools spoke of students holding down jobs along with schoolwork or leaving school altogether to work. Students are also missing school because they’re looking after siblings while their parents work extra jobs.
Their education is being sacrificed — and that matters because it’s their pathway out of poverty.
“[Kids are] too tired and falling asleep at school as they have worked all night and then come straight to school,” said one teacher.
“There are a couple of students working as farm hands to help with household income even though they’re primary school children,” wrote another.
Primary school children.
Schools reported students are bearing a load they shouldn’t have to shoulder, as their parents do their best to survive.
“One example is a boy who was always coming in late, saying he slept in. After a while I rang mum. She confessed that she started work really early and he had to get himself and younger siblings up and ready for school (couldn’t afford a pre-school programme),” a teacher said.
Of course, school isn’t just about academics. It’s trips, and camps, and after school sports and activities. Increasingly, that side of school life is closed to kids in poverty.
“A student in my class is great at sport but will never get the opportunity to succeed in it because her solo mother can’t afford petrol and sport fees or the time to get to the events,” wrote one teacher.
“These students are well aware of the struggles their families face and are making decisions to not even ask for fees.”
What can we do?
If there is anything uplifting in this reading, it’s the length that schools are taking to plug the gaps: picking up children when there is no petrol, fundraising for sports fees, arranging food parcels.
“Any doctors or specialist appointments that children haven’t been able to attend over the break, the school will organise to pick up parents and take the children to these appointments,” one said.
This is a lot to be asking of our schools whose primary role is to teach. It’s no wonder teachers are burning out.
That’s where charities step in. In this survey, we asked schools about the difference that our support makes.
“The impact of being able to provide our tamariki with food when they have little to nothing has been tremendous,” one said.
“Our children feel cared for and know that school will provide when they are low at home. Providing food, clothes, shoes and health products for our tamariki means they are not limited and absent from school due to these issues.”
KidsCan has thousands of children in 77 schools and 137 early childhood centres waiting for this crucial support — our biggest waitlist since 2018.
But we can’t just rely on kind Kiwis and businesses to feed and clothe vulnerable kids.
The Government must also play its part, prioritising policies that will help lift children out of poverty.
The top of that list must be affordable housing. Children shouldn’t be growing up in motels, campgrounds, or with 14 people in a two-bedroom home.
We need to put more money in the pockets of people in poverty, so they don’t have to work multiple jobs just to pay the bills. That’s not a life.
And agencies working on the front line need more support — our government funding, for example, has remained static for six years as our waitlist only grows.
One comment from a teacher in our survey has really stuck with me: “I think you see [poverty] so often it has become the norm, and nothing shocks anymore.”
But we must be shocked.
We can’t become numb to how children in poverty are living. We must imagine their faces, put ourselves in their shoes, and do our part in lifting them up. Our kids deserve nothing less.
Julie Chapman is founder and chief executive of KidsCan