Bryce Edwards: Is enough being done about child poverty?

Bryce Edwards: Is enough being done about child poverty?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won power in 2017 on the basis of statements such as “My goal is to eradicate child poverty in New Zealand”. The Government’s progress on child poverty will be under scrutiny at this year’s general election, but progress is slow, and many are claiming not enough is being done to address this urgent problem.

Statistics NZ has just published details of child poverty levels for the last few years, as required under the new Child Poverty Reduction Act. For the best report on this, see Sarah Robson’s New figures show little change in child poverty. She reports: “for the year ended June 2019, there was no significant change to the percentage of children living in material hardship, compared to the previous year – remaining at about 13 percent, or one in eight children”.

The Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft has described the figures as “underwhelming”.

The problem is the statistics can be interpreted in different ways – or at least cherry-picked by supporters and critics. Also, the statistics are limited in what they measure, particularly in terms of the time periods involved.

Some critics to the left and the right of the Government are pointing to various elements of the report to say things are getting worse, while the Government is highlighting elements that show they’re making progress.

Overall, there’s probably a consensus that if improvements have been made, they are marginal, and much more needs to be done to combat child poverty.

Interpretation of the child poverty statistics

Jason Attewell of Stats NZ gave an insight yesterday into why measures of poverty are contested and interpreted differently: “Now child poverty is a real complex issue, and it’s really hard to define who’s poor and who’s not poor… So we don’t look at just one measure we look at nine measures across.”

For the best discussion of the different interpretations of the new stats, see Jason Walls’ PM Jacinda Ardern and National’s Simon Bridges spin child poverty numbers – but who’s right? (paywalled). He points to the Government and Opposition arguments on the latest report, and declares “Both are right but for different reasons.”

Here’s the Government’s interpretation: “Ardern used what is known as the after-housing costs measure to argue her case for successfully combating child poverty. That showed that after housing costs, 235,400 kids lived in homes with less than 50 per cent of the overall median household income, in the year to June 2019. That’s a drop of 18,400 children, or a 2 per cent fall compared to the previous year.”

Here’s the Opposition interpretation: “Bridges used the numbers to suggest child poverty was getting much worse ‘under Jacinda Ardern’. He used the before-housing cost measure for the bottom 60 per cent of households and compared the year to June 2017 figures with those from 2019. On this measure, the 20,000 figure is correct – 243,300 kids were in this category in 2017, compared with 263,400 in 2019.”

In contrast, Walls points out that there is arguably a third and more important interpretation of the figures: “the most important measure – according to Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft – was actually increasing. Material hardship, which measures the things most people would consider to be essentials – such as access to fresh fruit and vegetables, going to the doctor and the ability to pay bills on time – increase by just over 4000 in the year to June last year.”

For further discussion of the different measures of child poverty and what is changing, see Thomas Manch’s Child poverty: Numbers show marginal change, but more children in material hardship. This includes reporting of Stats NZ’s principal statistician Diane Ramsay, who “said she could not be confident there was a downward trend in the figures due to margin, and results in the coming years would clarify this.”

Also, see Max Rashbrooke’s analysis, which is more positive, suggesting that the PM should be relieved to finally have “a tangible – if tentative – sign of progress” – see: Child poverty stats promising, but more is needed.

Rashbrooke also points to the contrast with what was occurring under the last National Government: “If the improvements are real, they will be all the more impressive when seen in the light of the previous National-led governments, of which the best that can be said is that they maintained, overall, a very high level of poverty. In their nine years in power, poverty fell on some measures but increased on others, and in general seemed to be becoming cemented into the foundations of New Zealand life. We may look back on this moment, then, and see it as a turning point”.

Criticism about the failure to deliver

Critics on both left and right of Labour are saying the Government is failing to deliver the promised improvements in child poverty.

On the right, Mike Hosking is calling this out as “another promise not met”, which he says is especially damaging for the PM, as child poverty reduction “was the Prime Minister’s calling card” – see: Child poverty is the KiwiBuild of social failure. Hosking concludes: “Every social indicator has gone backwards – food handouts, housing queues, jobless payments and poverty. Every single one of them in the wrong direction.”

Heather du Plessis Allan also has a hard-hitting take on the findings – see: Child poverty figures shows PM is not helping those she promised to. She says this about Ardern: “Remember when she promised to lift 100,000 children out of poverty by 2020. Well, it’s 2020, that is so far from happening… it’s just gutting. We expect centre-left governments to come and do the best they can for people at the bottom of the heap, because those people are there.”

Du Plessis Allan warns it will damage Labour and Ardern’s credibility with their own supporters: “It has charities, NGOs, churches, unions, all telling them to get on with it. Labour’s entire support base is telling them to help people, but they’re not. How can they expect those people to re-elect them or even respect them? How can the Prime Minister ever say again that she will help the worst off and expect us to believe it? Today’s figures haven’t just hurt the government’s credibility; they’ve hurt the Prime Minister’s.”

Those NGOs are also speaking out. Child Poverty Action Group spokesperson Susan St John says: “Put simply: these statistics do not show any change for the children living in the worst, most entrenched poverty… This confirms our view that the Families Package (implemented July 2018) was not designed to give the necessary income boost to those in the deepest poverty. This picture is unlikely to change when the full Families Package is counted in the next report due in 2021” – see: The latest child poverty statistics are a wake-up call.

Her group says “child poverty requires urgent and immediate action. Meaningful adjustments to the benefit system and working for families must not wait until after the election for implementation.”

And even in Max Rashbrooke’s cautiously congratulatory account, he warns much more action is needed, saying: “the government will have to marshal resources of which it has only just begun to dream. Most of its efforts so far have focused on taking those who are just below the poverty line and lifting them just over it. That is valuable, and makes a real difference to families’ lives. But there are still tens of thousands of families in far deeper poverty. Their situation, the new data suggests, has barely improved.”

Rashbrooke says the PM needs to take a bolder approach: “That will require considerably more political courage from a leader who has so far governed cautiously. But it is the reality of the task she has set herself. The early steps she has made, though valuable, may turn out to have been the easiest.”

Ardern is promising more, and she is reported as believing that her government is “on track” to meet its promises. She says part of the problem is that the latest statistics don’t reflect how much has recently been done – see Zane Small’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confident child poverty reduction policies ‘yet to show’ full results.

Finally, last month the Child Poverty Action Group commissioned Spinoff cartoonist Toby Morris to illustrate the need for “the government to fix the broken welfare system so all children and families can thrive” – see: Fairer Future: Fixing Poverty in Aotearoa.