No, Paula: Nits are a Symptom, but Poverty is the Cause.

Paula Bennett has announced the Government will provide nearly $1 million funding through the Ministry of Social Development to KidsCan to manage head lice in low decile schools, see Scoop.

Paula Bennett goes as far as admitting that the cost of nit treatments is prohibitive for poor families:

“Although nits are found in all schools, children from low-decile schools, and particularly their parents, could use help in dealing with nits. Treatment can typically cost $30. Combine that with several heads in the household and the problem becomes extremely expensive. This initiative will allow for whole families to be treated if necessary. It can be a struggle for some families to keep on top of infestations. We hear of children having their heads shaved and severe scalp infections where unsuitable treatments are used”.

My problem with the Government working through KidsCam to treat kids for nits at school (including hairdresser style chairs) is that it is the worst type of “ambulance at the end of the cliff” program typical of poorly conceptualised development programmes.

Nits are a symptom Paula, but poverty is the problem. Only treating the nits does nothing to change the living conditions of the child overall. Kids will be just as hungry and cold and poorly educated, without nits. They will be as vulnerable to the next illness that comes along, that their parent or parents will also not be able to afford to treat.

Changing poverty in New Zealand is a different matter.  You could increase the minimum wage to a living wage so that families can provide the essential costs of living. You could increase the base rate of the unemployment benefit, so that children in beneficiary families are not punished for their parents lack of employment. While you were at it, you could implement changes in the culture of Work and Income New Zealand, so that beneficiaries are not bullied and shamed during the application process. You could create jobs.

It’s hard to say if the programme the Government has announced will even work, here are some problems with it:

  • Nit infestation is about needing treatment, but it is also about overcrowded living conditions where lice can easily be passed from head to head. I think kids are likely to keep getting them back from other family members, who will still not be able to afford to treat them.
  • National loves to pretend it keeps out of people’s lives, but I can’t think of a more “nannying” intervention than treating people’s children for head lice!  What it really means is that they are unable to address the impact of income inequality, but children from lower deciles are able to be subjected to more policing than other children. How are the kids going to feel about having people who aren’t their parents come in and treat them for head lice? How will parents feel about it? How is the potential bullying that might occur towards children who are treated for head lice going to be managed? Will it feel like another instance of micro-agression or minority stress for Pacific kids who are already subject to ongoing micro-agressions?
  • Do you even understand how Pacific communities are going to feel about having people come in and washing their kids hair?
  • Money spent on hairdressing chairs, basins, and either paying or subsidising the travel costs of the hair washers (it’s not clear how the program works) could be spent directly on families in need, who could then treat nits in their own home.
  • It could put more pressure on teachers, and take kids away from learning while they are being checked, washed, dried and nit-combed at school.
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6 thoughts on “No, Paula: Nits are a Symptom, but Poverty is the Cause.

  1. Headlice are part of range of socio economic issues. I do think children need help with this but I would hope assistance given to children’ s families rather than treatment in school taking place. We are not a wealthy family but our kids go to decile 10 school where headlice are a huge problem. So I think far more than just decile 1 communities need help. Part of problem is environmental…longer warmer summer and the lice developing resistance to treatments. I developed my own home made treatment which is simply olive oil and tea tree oil. These are expensive (about $13 each, tea tree oil can be bought from pharmacy) but much cheaper than the commercial treatments. You use about 1/5 cup to 1/4 c on each head adding about 10 drops of tea tree oil first. Cover with shower cap for about 10 mins then comb out while hair still oily. I let the kids watch tv while I do it. And put towels around them cos its a gloopy, messy, time consumingjob but much better than using chemicals that are bad for kids and enviroment. This works because lice are smothered in oil. Tea tree oil mixed with water can be used to spritz kids hair as preventative. I would be concerned about treatment in school setting particularly as children who are sensitive to chemicals could be effected, eg children with autism and other learning disabilities need people and treatment that will work for them.

    1. thanks for your comment. I agree that parents need to be able to make decisions about what treatment to use, and definitely environmental factors seem to come into it. I agree, I’d rather see more help going to low income families.

    1. Hannah, it has nothing to do with the intentions of the head lice, obviously. It is about being able to afford treatment of around $30, for the whole family, multiple times. So to put it in perspective, if the family is made up of one parent and two kids, and the parent is earning minimum wage of $14.25 an hour, that is $570 (before tax) per week. Once you take out about $300.00 rent, that doesn’t leave very much for food, power and travel, let alone nit treatment.

      1. Point taken on the costs of treating nits. But nit treatment has always been expensive. I remember when I was at primary school and I had nits we had to by the school authorised nit treatment. After the whole class had nit inspection, which resulted in shame and ostracising.

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