Jonathan Boston

Kids' experiences leave long-term scars

He might not be superman, but Jonathan Boston is everywhere in the current debate on child poverty. He speaks out in public with as much passion as a professor can…

He might not be superman, but Jonathan Boston is everywhere in the current debate on child poverty.

He speaks out in public with as much passion as a professor can muster. He co-coordinated the biggest report in years. He writes eloquently in articles and papers and is co-authoring a book. “If you care for your neighbour, and you want the best start in life for children, this current situation is very, very upsetting,” he says in urgent but clipped accents that are hard to place.

He had been writing on social policy for decades but was still shocked at what he found when he focussed in on child poverty a couple of years ago” despite his own childhood brush with poverty. He now heads the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University.

Public ignorance

As co-chair of the Children’s Commissioner’s expert advisory group that last year produced the ground-breaking Solutions to Child Poverty report, he was plunged into a world that most people in New Zealand still know little of.

His work outlines the third-world diseases, the appalling housing, the shared beds and poor food, and the inevitable educational underachievement of many New Zealand children. “It has affected me quite significantly on a personal level. I have been quite shocked by some of the evidence that has come to light, by the difficulties experienced by significant numbers of children. They have a very tough start to life.”

Jonathan’s own background is affluent, but not without its trials. His father, a GP in the UK’s Midlands, came from a prosperous family, but like many at the time who lived through the Great Depression, he was committed to ideas of socialism and social democracy, as was his mother, a strong Christian.

Boston started at a prep school in the UK at age four, but at five the family moved to Flinders Island, off Tasmania’s north coast, then to Tasmania, and finally to New Zealand. A business venture in North Canterbury failed and the family lost everything” house, savings, furniture.

We were poor

“We had deck chairs in the lounge. No curtains. There was considerable stress even though we weren’t income poor. I can remember very much feeling, I guess as children in a poor family would feel, the kind of insecurity that generates, and comparing yourself with your peers, and certainly by comparison with sons and daughters of other professionals we were very poor.”

In all, Boston attended around 10 primary schools and it’s not an experience he recommends” “very disruptive”, he says, noting that residential and school transcience is relatively common in New Zealand nowadays. “I was fortunate” I didn’t lack anything significantly and I had a considerable amount of self-confidence. But lots of poor children get shunted around from school to school and place to place and many don’t have the family support or wherewithal I enjoyed. “I can just imagine the insecurity and challenge those children will face. Of course, sadly many of these kids’ experiences leave long term scars.”

No one likes poverty

The government’s response to the Children’s Commissioner’s 78 recommendations on child poverty was disappointing. While tinkering with minor proposals, it has dismissed the ones that might have made a significant, immediate difference, such as a universal child benefit.

Yet Boston says most people, regardless of ideology, would prefer less poverty than more. “The first question is: can a government intervention make a difference and personally, yes, I think it can. There’s good international evidence on that.”

But the other question, and not the least, he says, relates to the cost of fixing child poverty: the costs must be paid up front but the rewards don’t come immediately. “Unfortunately the political will and incentives appear to be lacking on these questions. The challenge, therefore, must be to change the political climate, ideally in a durable manner. This will not be an easy or straightforward task. But, for the sake of those children who deserve a better start in life, it is undoubtedly worth pursuing” with intelligence, persuasiveness and vigour.”