Affirmative action needed to end child poverty - UNICEF

Around 300,000 Kiwi kids are in poverty, says UNICEF (IStock)
Around 300,000 Kiwi kids are in poverty, says UNICEF (IStock)

UNICEF says it's time the Government did something to help lift Māori and Pasifika children out of poverty, even if it means targeting them because of their race.

About 300,000 Kiwi kids live below the poverty line according to UNICEF. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on Saturday slammed New Zealand's ongoing failure to fix the problem.

UNICEF New Zealand executive director Vivien Maidaborn told The Nation on Sunday the Government's doing a lot, but the outcomes "don't stack up" because they aren't addressing the wider causes of poverty.

"Specific initiatives for children will only ever go so far. It needs to be connected to housing policy, employment policy, economic development."

The UN report said affirmative action should be taken "if necessary", and even singled out Māori and Pasifika children, as well as "ethnic minorities, refugee children, migrant children, children with disabilities, lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender and intersex children and children living with persons from these groups".

Ms Maidaborn says it's time to end the debate on whether this would mean race-based privilege.

"I think there is race-based privilege in New Zealand - it's very clear that a European child in New Zealand will have better life outcomes than Māori, including life expectancy as an adult.

"I think that we just have to accept there is race-based privilege, but it certainly isn't on the side of Māori and Pasifika young people. With that in mind, we need to focus on outcomes - and that's what equity is about.

"Right now in our country we keep going over and over the debate about whether we ought to treat different groups differently. It just seems to me if we focus on outcomes, that becomes a much easier decision."

The number of Kiwi children in poverty according to UNICEF has grown 30,000 since 2013. Since then, the Government has increased benefits, made doctor's visits for under-13s free and launched the Ministry for Vulnerable Children.

"I do think that they believe their investment in benefits - which was remarkable and should be acknowledged - is all they have to do," says Ms Maidaborn. "They're just more interested in activity than outcomes at this stage."

Part of the difficulty in measuring outcomes is that the Government refuses to come up with a formula to define child poverty. Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft has come up with one which would put the figure at 149,000, and wants the Government to commit to reducing it by 10 percent by the end of 2017.

Prime Minister John Key responded by saying child poverty was too difficult to define, compared to relatively easy measures, such as pest numbers.

"It's more binary in terms of whether there's a rat, a stoat or a possum there or whether there isn't because you can understand that," he said.

"He's probably not happy now he made that statement," says Ms Maidaborn, "but I think it tells us something about where the Government at the moment are at."