Child poverty will be back on the radar this week, but will anything actually be done? If National's so determined to help the 1 in 6 in the education tail, what about the 1 in 5 without enough to make ends meet?

Poverty in New Zealand is getting worse. So the Ministry for Social Development found this past week.

There’s a degree to which, as Jesus Christ said, the poor will always be with us. But the trend had been improving in the past decade, what with low unemployment, Working for Families (especially for the working poor) and income-related rents on state houses. Then came the global financial crisis and recession. Opposition parties argue that that arrival of a National-led government has also undermined the gains being made.

Child poverty had been falling since 1994, but between 2009 and 2011 it's flatlined, with just over 1 in 5 kids living in poverty (defined as a household living on less than 60% of the median wage). The Every Child Counts campaign estimates that costs us over $6 billion a year as a nation, let alone the personal misery to those living it .

So it’s about time we started talking about child poverty again. This week it’ll be back on the agenda with the release of the Children’s Commissioner’s Expert Advisory Group (EAG) report on Tuesday. The experts are diverse, from the usual church and community groups who deal with the poor every day, but this time also including business leaders such as Phil O’Reilly of Business New Zealand.

For the reason alone, the report should demand some attention, drive some debate and put some pressure on National to take it seriously. While it’s not released until Tuesday, I’ve got a pretty clear idea of three major recommendations likely to be in there.

First, the group will call for a Warrant of Fitness for landlords. Given John Key has this weekend stressing the success of the Green-inspired home insulation scheme, but the disappointing uptake from landlords, it’s a timely bit of advice. A WOF on rental homes would ensure poor kids don’t grow up in leaky, cold and unhealthy homes. Really, a safe, warm house should be a basic requirement if you’re going to charge rent. Who can argue with that?

Second, it’ll call for meals to be provided more widely in schools. Some, such as Deborah Morris-Travers from Every Child Counts says that’s a no-brainer. Children need food if they’re to learn and deal with the social demands of school. Some are less keen, however, arguing it takes the onus off parents and puts more pressure on teachers to feed as well as teach our children.

But another study shows this could just be the thin end of the school wedge. Every Child Counts’ Netherlands study this week talked about schools becoming a community hub, with not only meals but before and after school care, nurses, social workers and clubs. It’s a bold prescription, but one that works overseas by helping working parents and keeping families connected to their schools.

Third, the EAG is expected to call for some form of long-term and universal state assistance for kids – maybe a Universal Child Benefit, or some money every week for every child born. Until 1991 we had such a thing – a Family Benefit. That went in the Bolger/Richardson years.

The argument is to look at seniors. They get universal super and we have one of the lowest senior poverty rates in the world. Don’t out kids deserve as good as their elders? But others say a universal benefit would spread the money too thin. Better to target more money at the poorest, say through the Working for Families in-work tax credit. Currently it only goes to those in work and beneficiaries – the poorest folk – miss out. The argument is that if you change the name it could became what it was always meant to be in the first place – a way to get money into the hands of those with kids but little cash.

Neither of those are likely to find favour with this government, however. Just last week Social Development Minister Paula Bennett told the House that New Zealand doesn’t have a strong enough economy to sustain a universal child benefit. She hoped one day it might.

But Morris-Travers turns that argument on its head, by looking to the Netherlands. On Q+A she said:

“They invest in their population, so that their population is healthy, educated and in turn that means they have a greater rate of productivity and a stronger economy than New Zealand.”

So which comes first, the chicken or the egg? The economy or the spending?

The stage is set for an interesting debate this week.

Comments (23)

by nommopilot on August 27, 2012

Yes, the stage is set, however given Paula Bennett's disingenuous approach to date, I think the debate will not be interesting, it will be farcical.

by Peter Tenby on August 27, 2012
Peter Tenby

There seems to be a fundamental assumption that they are actually interested in solving it?

I would strongly disagree. Their interest extends only as far as solving the problem of the underclass costing them money, votes or annoying their priviledged way of life in any way.

Everything else is a waste of time and money to them as demonstrated by their actions to date. (ignoring a politician's rhetoric as having any worth should be assumed by know I would have thought??)

by nommopilot on August 27, 2012

interesting is not how I'd describe this kind of avoidance of responsibility.

let the poor eat sophistry.  delicious...

by Richard Aston on August 27, 2012
Richard Aston

I feel some despair as I agree with the general skepticism that govt will do anything about this at all. But I wonder if the problem is way deeper the govt.

On the Every Child Counts site it says "Many people find it difficult to believe that there is child poverty in New Zealand and are amazed to learn we have one of the higher levels in the developed world."

I wonder if this is the problem , there is just not enough public awareness of child poverty and even what it really means. How is child poverty different to parent/adult poverty. What really is poverty? Who has defined that? etc etc .

Because of the nature of my work I do see real poverty ( and it's effect on children) most weeks but I suspect many NZers are still sitting comfortably in that " NZ a great place to bring up kids" dream.

Its not helped, I think, by varying and hard to understand poverty measures. 60% of the meduim wage , could be perceived as, Shocking or just a bit uncomfortable .

I think we have a way to go before policticians are willing to jump on this campaign .


by Peter Tenby on August 27, 2012
Peter Tenby

Which politicians?

The greens have been on this campaign for ages and there have been numerous stories and articles.

Ok, let's all be brutally honest now:

When your average kiwi thinks of the victims of child poverty they think of a typically brown skinned soon-to-be criminal whose parents are blood sucking parasites living off the benefit because they are too lazy to work and spend the more than adequate income they get for free off the sweat stained backs of hard working NZers on booze, cigarettes and pot - this making them entirely to blame and not the problem of said hard working kiwis. 

I hear this on the street, in the tea room at work and most certainly reading comment forums on sites such as stuff. It widespread existence is a fact. 

The dirty secret is NOT child poverty here...

by Richard Aston on August 27, 2012
Richard Aston

Totally agree Peter its an issue of public perception . The same perception that supports drug  testing beneficiaries, getting those lazy DPB mothers back to work etc etc.

And politicians are riding that wave because there are votes in it.


by Matthew Percival on August 27, 2012
Matthew Percival

Perception as you put it is dominated by what people see with their own eyes. Take for instance my experience a couple of weekends ago. Whilst walking around Western Springs you see a good cross-section of our society and lots and lots of children.

I saw a woman and two children coming towards me. The thing that caught my attention was the age and condition of the clothing they were wearing. On that basis (yes they were brown but that's beside the point) I figured they were probably poor. So imagine my surprise when next I spy dad pushing a pram with not one but two babies in it.

What the heck? These individuals appeared hardly capable of clothing themselves yet selfishly decide to have more children, thus bringing a bigger burden on the rest of society whose role it becomes to feed, cloth and educate these kids?? That's what people get pissed off about - when other people make bad decision after bad decision and get themselves into problems

When these poor families get paraded in the newspapers we get a glimpse into the issue. They are more often than not a victim of their own bad decisions. I have seen very few in the newspapers that are a victim of government policy/societal issues.

Hopefully that goes some way to explaining the public perception. Now onto Tim's 3 point solution.

#1 Landlords have just had building depreciation wiped off their income statements, have had to restructure their affairs with the cancellation of the LAQC regime and now a WOF? I'm concerned about the cost of not only bringing our houses up to standard but of getting your WOF updated every year (or whatever the requirement may be). How are landlords going to react to the additional cost? They will put the rent up.

Limiting a WOF to rentals creates a class of home owner(s) who would have inferior housing to the poor. The type of home owner who throws everything they have into a deposit and the mortgage. I don't think that is an palatable situation. Your idea needs modification, perhaps a broader approach (although that's going to cost) . Incidentally the house I rent in Westmere GV $750,000 would need substantial work to bring it up to standard. Your policy may not be particularly well targeted. It may also not produce the intended results. I've had no sickness this winter unlike previous years living in a new insulated home. Go figure!

#2. The schools idea is a fascinating one. Again poorly targeted and too nanny state for my ideology but I have a penchant for out of the box ideas. I wonder how parents would receive it? I'd suggest not particularly well as it will take choice away from parents. The big issue though would be how to fund it. I read an article on scoop last week where it talked about the "inexpensive" solutions to child poverty. There is nothing inexpensive about this. If it was inexpensive we wouldn't have poverty in the first place.

#3. I hope the Universal child allowance is quickly thrown to one side. Poorly targeted and it encourages people to have more children at a time when the worlds population requires us to do the opposite.

The argument put forward by Morris-Travers has some validity but falls down because New Zealand is a small country in an unfriendly time-zone where growth is stifled by red tape and minorities. We simply can't provide the same opportunities as other countries with our current policy which is why we see some heading overseas. I suspect we would simply be providing investment to the benefit of other countries until we come to the realisation that our current direction has growth limitations.

An interesting debate Tim and one the always gets great response.

by nommopilot on August 27, 2012

That's a great anecdote, Matthew.

In your retelling you have demonstrated exactly the kinds of thought processes that lead people to make assumptions according to their underlying beliefs in order to confirm their own ideological bias.  We can read your path to forming a judgement based on appearance and your merry justification for resenting their "bad decisions".  We can see just how easy it is to form judgements of vast swathes of society based on our contempt for them and our regard for our own intellectual superiority.

Of course you have no idea who these people are or what their circumstances might be.  You have no idea what their children might grow to achieve - their parents' bad decision to breed might bring us a cancer cure or a new sustainable energy breakthrough.

You've not only written off the parents without a 2nd thought you've written off their children as well.  I suppose the poor kids made the "bad decision" to be born to poor parents, right?

by Richard Aston on August 28, 2012
Richard Aston

Perception its a tricky wee beastie.

Matthews story and Mic's reflection show us how tricky it really is.

Taking the idea that some people just made bad decisions and these bad decisions impact on the rest of us , especially if "the rest of us" have to bail them out .

Oh bail outs , yes isn't that what we did with a few finance companies and the odd bank. Didn't a few up and coming finance wizz kid heroes make a few "bad decisions" and what was the cost to the rest of us for those.

There ya go , that one of my particular "perceptions" .

Matthew , you are right, there are plenty of "poor" people who made bad decisions, plenty more who grew up in families that made bad decisions and know no other way.
And there are some I have met who are just plain broken, life was unkind , they were unlucky.

I for one am more than willing to pick up the pieces, to help bail out those people, its called civilisation. The human story in all its ragged glory is less than perfect. That's the point. We fail we pick ourselves up , with help, we fail again , we try again.

We think we have it all sussed but anyone of us could fail badly , make mistakes and find ourselves in  a position where we are dependant on the kindness of strangers. 




by Peter Tenby on August 28, 2012
Peter Tenby

Thanks for the caricature Mathew. I could not have written such witty satire on my best were serious??

As for the rest, couldn't agree more...

by Raymond A Francis on August 28, 2012
Raymond A Francis

If the definition of child poverty really is:

"  A household living on less than 60% of the median wage"

Thennone of the things outlined above can help

You are never going to beat the House/Bank if that is the definition

Of course we should do or try to do those things because they will help disadvantaged children but we need a better definition

by Peter Tenby on August 28, 2012
Peter Tenby

Raymond: Yes you can. (not 100.0% of course but I assume that is not what you meant)

Ans: Reduce income inequality and unemployment.

Currently we are going the wrong way on that.

by Matthew Percival on August 28, 2012
Matthew Percival

That's a very good piece Richard and an interesting analogy on the finance company bailouts. I wasn't a fan of those bailouts - the investors took the risk and came unstuck.

People fall into poverty for a variety of reasons ranging from bad luck to self-induced bad decision making. The solutions need to reflect the causes and putting ambulances at the bottom of cliffs isn't going to solve the problem. There needs to be both preventative and support mechanisms put in place. We need to recognise that some people are poor due to their own bad decisions and prevent them spreading that misery on to children.

Likewise we also need to recognise that global economic conditions also play a role and some people have been thrust into poverty.

Raymond, I am also not comfortable with the 60% median wage analogy. Poverty is about not being able to afford the basics - a basket of goods measurement would be far more appropriate. It would be interesting to apply the 60% median wage methodology to Australia and see how appropriate it is.

Peter, what are the solutions you propose? Reducing income inequality sounds great, how do you plan to achieve it? How do you plan to reduce unemployment?

by Brendon Mills on August 28, 2012
Brendon Mills

The issue at hand can be solved by more elegant solutions than the ones being proposed.

Diverting WFF and Accomodation supplements into increasing the state housing stock, with its security of tenancy and income related rent (and possibly options to purchase) is probably the best way of solving this issue. High rents and transience are large contributors to poverty in this country, given that there are a lot of slum lords and speculators out there dont really give a damn about their tenants. Increasing the HNZ stock will a) put downward pressure on rents, and increase the standard of rental housing, as the arsehole landlords are forced to exit the rental market and b) it will also hose down any property bubble way better than a CGT ever will. It will also have the added bonus of providing jobs for tradesmen and oppurtunites for building and contruction companies pertaining to the design of affordable quality accomodation (could also become an export earner for building houses overseas in developing countries).Poor people also need to be part of strong communites as much as the 'rest of us' do, and not shipped from pillar to post every few months because their landlord wants to sell up. 

Every child should be able to grow up without having the fear of having the rug pulled out from under them.


by stuart munro on August 29, 2012
stuart munro

Every child should be able to grow up without having the fear of having the rug pulled out from under them.

Yes - but their parents need the same security. Workforce elasticity is achieved at the expense of both. Neither are likely to fulfill their human or economic potential with scapegrace employers and sanctimonious monsters like Bennett kicking away the ladder every five minutes.

by Peter Tenby on August 29, 2012
Peter Tenby

Redistribution of wealth?

I know, I know. I sound like a communist/socialist/etc.

But whatever solution you choose it is amounts to the same thing.

The reason why this would work? NZ actually DOES have more than enough wealth to pull everyone out of poverty and more. Unfortunately it is not distributed that well (and getting markedly worse) while 50% of the wealthy don't even pay their way.

And if SCF could be bailed out (against better judgement) for 2 billion at the drop of a hat, don't tell me we cannot afford it!

by Raymond A Francis on August 29, 2012
Raymond A Francis

Peter even if we did redistibute the countrie's wealth (remind me what tax does again) to your satisfaction, we would still have children under the 60% median and you would still be able to complain about child poverty, while they went to school in a RollsRoyce (or is that a Lada) taxi

by Peter Tenby on August 29, 2012
Peter Tenby

Apparently we have 12 billion for roads.


And raymond I appreciate you trying to genuinely capture my thoughts and perspective and a fair and balanced way without spin or straw man but I regret you have failed.

Yes, tax does do that to some extent which is why I pointed out that ANY solution to poverty is effectively redistribution.

And you need to check up on your statistics a bit. There is a scenario whereby there are very few people earning less than 60% of the median wage...

by Tim Watkin on August 29, 2012
Tim Watkin

I agree with the points about perception. So many people blame first and ask why later, if at all. There is something mean-spirited in our psyche. The good side of the coin is that we value self-reliance, but the bad is that we have so little sympathy for those who can't stand alone.

Matthew, I got a little cross with you when you worried about the cost of keeping your houses up to standard. If that WOF meant renters living in warmer, healthier houses (with the consequent lower health bills and failure rates), wouldn't that be worth it? In fact, if you can afford houses, wouldn't you sacrifice something so that kids grew up healthier? I appreciate the thought in your contributions though.

What I think we need to keep remembering is that kids shouldn't suffer for the mistakes -- or even the selfishishness -- of their parents. The only way I can imagine us really cutting into our child poverty rates is to accept that we're going to have to get past the blame and give money to some considered undeserving. For the kids.



by Rab McDowell on August 30, 2012
Rab McDowell

Oh, the law of unintended consequences trips us up time and time again.
The poor, probably more than most, need warm comfortable housing and should not be screwed by landlords. So we bring in WOF for houses and cancel LAQC and depreciation for landlords. Consequence. These impose extra costs on rental housing, some landlords get out of the business and so rentals go up and the poorest cannot afford the rent.
We really need to cut child poverty so we get past the blame game and give money to some considered undeserving. Consequence. We reduce the difference between welfare income and wages for work thus reducing incentives for getting people into work and increasing welfare dependency.

The answer is rarely as easy as 1,2,3. That’s why, whether we be capitalist or socialist, haven’t solved it yet.

by stuart munro on September 01, 2012
stuart munro

All these factors are accelerated by urbanisation and the commercial capture of economies that once were part of households. My grandparent's generation grew most of their own fruit and vegetables, and some of their meat, certainly chickens and eggs. They made a lot of their own clothes. This prevented market forces from inflating prices in these areas.

We could do a lot worse than to re-establish some of these subsistence economies to assist those that globalised financial capitalism does not serve. A hundred years ago households had a lot of ways to use surplus labour. We may need such resourcefulness again.

by animalspirit on September 04, 2012

Copy Africa etc and set up cellphone banks for small transactions - buy groceries and direct transaction ensues- specified supermarkets; some market codes disallowed - chips, fizzy drinks (see you "new brand" supermarket is putting them right inside entrance dooe on "specials" to grab families/kids on crap product before they more to veg and fruit).   Minor credit available on low rates to discourage loan sharks and set dates for loading at Post Shop or wherever.   If (cheap)cellphone banking can work well with the huge and increasing number of efficient users inAfrica (and elsewhere) why not here?  Different cards for parents so one can't spend housekeeper 's and kids' budget.   NZ Poverty Ap - tho know we can come up with a catchy name.   These are very basic phones mainly 2nd hand from developed countries and fixed up.   Simple number codes for different transations and businesses.   Great for fisherman who find out best prices before deciding where to land and sell their product.   Let's do it!

by Fiona on July 09, 2013

Jesus Christ said, the poor will always be with us.

And Yahweh said he will destroy the wicked with fire and didn't Paula Bennetts house catch fire last week? Just a warning. He also said he will break the arms of the wicked and john key broke his arm a couple of months after being elected. So many signs that so many don't see. He also says Charity covers a multitude of sins.

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