Child poverty: 'Huge time lag' means latest stats do not reflect post-COVID hardship - Andrew Becroft

The latest statistics on child poverty in New Zealand "absolutely" paint a different picture to the current reality, according to Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft, as the data only provides a clear picture of child poverty pre-COVID-19. 

On Tuesday morning, the latest data provided by Statistics New Zealand showed "all measures of child poverty were trending downwards" in the two years from June 2018.

However, the statistics only cover nine months to March 2020, as the nationwide lockdown implemented that month affected Stats NZ's ability to collect data from households. As the data does not take into account the impacts of COVID-19, the statistics are only reflective of child poverty prior to the pandemic - and are therefore not an accurate representation of today's reality.

In Tuesday's release, Stats NZ noted that the data "gives a clear picture of child poverty pre-COVID-19".

"We are confident in the data's ability to report on child poverty in New Zealand before the COVID lockdown in March 2020," work, wealth, and wellbeing senior manager Sean Broughton said.

Speaking to The AM Show before the statistics were released on Tuesday, Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft said the report will "absolutely" paint a different picture to the current state of child poverty in New Zealand. 

It's "undeniable" that COVID-19 has exacerbated the issue, Becroft said.

"There's this huge time lag, which is really frustrating," he explained. "In the last year we have heard of greater hardship. COVID has made it worse - that's undeniable."

Becroft expressed hope that the pre-COVID statistics would show a decline, providing an indication that the Government is progressing towards its goal of halving child poverty by 2028. 

The data did show that the percentage of children living in households that experienced material hardship had dropped from 149,000 in 2019 to 125,000 in 2020. 

It also found that the number of children experiencing severe material hardship had decreased, from 64,600 in 2019 to 53,000 in 2020.

In the year ended June 2020, about one-in-nine children lived in households reporting material hardship, down from about one-in-eight in the year ended June 2018. 

It's welcome news for Becroft, who expressed that New Zealand would be in "real trouble" if the data didn't show a reduction in child poverty statistics pre-COVID-19.

"I'd like at least these stats to show - with that time lag - that we were on track," he said. 

The latest data shows all measures of child poverty are "trending downwards".
The latest data shows all measures of child poverty are "trending downwards". Photo credit: Getty

Earlier this month, Finance Minister Grant Robertson released the 2021 Budget Policy Statement (BPS), a document outlining the Government's priorities for the 2021 Budget. Robertson said this year's budget will focus on ensuring that spending, while carefully prioritised, is targeted at the areas and people that require it the most post-COVID. 

Due to the strength of New Zealand's economic rebound following two stringent lockdowns last year, Robertson confirmed that the Government will be reassessing the spending provided for the COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund to see if the money could be better allocated elsewhere.

"As the economy has rebounded stronger-than-expected, we are taking the opportunity to assess if money can be better targeted or reprioritised where it has not already been used," Robertson said.

With a surplus of money and the economy in a relatively strong position, Becroft said COVID-19 cannot be used as an excuse to stall initiatives that would tackle child poverty.

"We've got a surplus, we're lucky to have that, we saved it for a rainy day - if you were asking children, they'd say it's pouring down outside," he told The AM Show.

"Is the burden of COVID going to be imposed on poor children, or are we going to fix it for them? Do we use it as an excuse to do less for children, or a reason to do more?

"It needs to be an opportunity to do more… the money is there to be spent."

Becroft says there is money that can be spent on reducing child poverty and COVID-19 is "not an excuse".
Becroft says there is money that can be spent on reducing child poverty and COVID-19 is "not an excuse". Photo credit: The AM Show

The commissioner is now calling on the Government to enact "big, bold initiatives" - starting with raising benefits. 

A consequence of significant benefit cuts in 1991 was an increase in child poverty, an issue consecutive governments have continued to grapple with. Thirty years later, benefits still remain beneath what was offered prior to the slashes - a failure that Becroft says New Zealand is now paying for.

"We've never made up that difference, and we pay for that today," he said.

He argues the bedrock of reducing child poverty is ensuring families are equipped with the safety net that benefits provide.

A new UMR poll released on Monday found that 69 percent of New Zealanders want income support increased for those in need.

"This poll shows that ensuring liveable incomes for all would be a popular move for the government, across the board, as well as the right thing to do," Janet McAllister from the Child Poverty Action Group said on Monday.

"We must take the same common sense approach to ensure everyone, whether they are working, caring for children, living with a disability or illness, learning, or have lost their jobs before or because of COVID, has a liveable income."

In addition to raising the benefit, Becroft suggests free medical care for those aged 18 and under and free breakfasts or lunches for children at school.

"Even if [poverty] was tracking down prior to COVID, we can't use COVID as an excuse. We're in good shape. Now is the time for those big, bold initiatives - and it must start with putting benefits up," he said. 

"It's the fair thing to do. It's our choice to prioritise children."