Early investment key to ending disadvantage, tackling child poverty - researchers

Cross-party and whole-of-government action is needed to tackle Aotearoa’s “stubbornly poor” child poverty record, according to researchers at independent think tank, Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, based at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland.

With intergenerational disadvantage resulting in up to 30 percent of Aotearoa’s children not having their basic needs met, the researchers are calling for the country’s investment in the earliest life stages to be stepped up and well implemented - and are also emphasising the critical importance of culturally appropriate, community-focused services.

First 2000 days

Koi Tū researchers Dr Felicia Low and Dr Johan Morreau say the first 2000 days - from conception and continuing through pregnancy and childhood - are critically important.

Increased spending on health, upskilling and social support for parents and families over this period would be one of the most cost-effective interventions possible, they say.

“Early investment to minimise the much greater later life cost of largely preventable issues for our children and young people cannot be overstated,” Dr Low, who leads the maternal and child health knowledge hub at Koi Tū, said in a release on Wednesday.

“All children deserve the best possible start to promote their long-term physical, neurodevelopmental and mental health, and in turn their potential to contribute to society. The first 2000 days presents a critical window of opportunity, as this is when the child’s exposures and experiences influence the trajectory of their long-term outcomes.”

Māori and Pasifika

Despite the introduction in recent years of fiscal and social interventions to reduce child poverty - where an estimated 20 to 30 percent of New Zealand tamariki live in poverty - rates remain high and particularly disadvantage Māori and Pasifika populations, the researchers say in their brief, Early investment: A key to reversing intergenerational disadvantage and inequity in Aotearoa New Zealand.

This situation has occurred against the backdrop of New Zealand’s colonial history, which has contributed to “significant unacceptable disadvantage and inequity for Māori,” they say.

“Children born into deprivation from the late 1980s were seriously stressed and are now the cohort of new parents whose children are also at greater risk of a continued cycle of disadvantage,” says Dr Morreau.

“In 2022, the Child Poverty Indicators report showed mixed progress in immediate and longer-term measures of child poverty,” the retired general and community paediatrician and former chief medical advisor at Lakes District Health Board says.

“Clearly a more comprehensive systems approach adding to current initiatives is needed to effect more significant change,” he says.

Culturally appropriate services

The researchers advocate a practical, systems approach to reversing the cycle of intergenerational disadvantage, involving cross-sectoral initiatives in the health, education and social development domains. They emphasise the critical importance of developing and growing culturally appropriate, community-focused services.

“The health approach requires that mothers and fathers are linked to the maternity system as soon as possible following recognition of pregnancy,” Dr Morreau says.

“This acknowledges not only that many disadvantaged young women do not engage with the health sector until pregnant, but also that it is critical to link parents and whānau with supportive systems as soon as is practicable and ensure these systems remain in place at least until the child starts school.”

A promising culturally relevant pilot programme, Tiaki Whānau, in which young parents are supported by kaitiaki, has already begun to demonstrate the value of whānau-centred care, with increased wellbeing of parents and babies, the researchers say.

Such examples must be rolled out more widely, with a commitment to progressively grow and support the kaitiaki workforce to accommodate the level of need, they say.

Sustaining the health, social development and education approaches will require cross-party acknowledgement of the “enormity” of the challenges, as well as a long-term whole-of-government and public service commitment to the solutions.

“This involves committing to a progressive shift in Government spending from late interventions that are relatively ineffective and expensive to investment in early preventative interventions that are more effective and less costly,” the researchers say.