One year on: How the Government's measuring up for families

With the costly festive season around the corner, just how much more well-off are New Zealanders since the coalition Government came to power last year? 

UNICEF New Zealand executive director Vivien Maidaborn says the Government has lived up to its promise of increasing money for low-income households, but says the situation families are finding themselves in is getting worse. 

"I believe things could be getting worse, but not because of lack of action from the Government," she told Newshub. "I think our housing industry, particularly our rental market, is in a phase of huge disruption and change."

She said it's difficult to paint a picture of how effective the Government's policies have been one year on: "It seems to me that the challenge this Government faces - and it's not just in reducing poverty, but many areas - is how fast they can get there."

Since being elected Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern has declared child poverty eradication one of her top priorities. In January, she said her Government would aim to make an "historic dent" in child poverty over the next 10 years. 

Under Labour's proposed child poverty reduction Bill, targets include significantly reducing the proportion of children in low-income households and slashing the number of children in material hardship. 

The Government announced last year it would spend $5.53 billion over four years on an ambitious plan to help low-income families and cut the child poverty rate by nearly 50 percent.

Its new families package - which was promised ahead of the election - would see around 384,000 households get an average of $75 extra per week. The package included the winter energy payment for superannuitants and beneficiaries to help with the cost of heating homes. 

But with rent rising by $30 since the Government was elected, and petrol prices recently reaching a 30-year high, many Kiwi families cannot afford to celebrate Christmas this year, a new survey by The Salvation Army has found. 

Pam Waugh, head of welfare services at The Salvation Army, says the results speak to the "rise of the working poor" in New Zealand. The country has a "fixed wage economy... and we've also got all those rising costs," she told The AM Show

"Rental prices going up is a real issue because we know the percentage of income being spent on rent has got a direct relationship to the degree of material hardship family's experience," says Ms Maidaborn.

"The Government has taken action on housing, but not necessarily on social housing. The KiwiBuild thing is great, because it creates more housing stock and that in the end helps everybody - but it's not designed for low-income families, but for first home owners."

National leader Simon Bridges says rents have gone up 2.5 times faster under the coalition Government than under National, and says the strain on households has forced each dollar to be stretched further as the cost of living rises. 

National blames the Government's changes to tenancy law and property investment rules, which it says pushes costs up for landlords. But Housing Minister Phil Twyford says rents are driven by supply and demand pressures, not landlord costs. 

"The industry has been protected from the point of view of the owner, and now we're introducing a whole lot of standards that people have to deliver... and people are saying, 'That'll put the rents up'," says Ms Maidaborn.

"We're in a cycle of trying to unpick this so that it actually works, and we haven't seen it play out yet."

The rising cost of fuel has also put significant pressure on Kiwis - particularly with the holiday season looming, new Statistics New Zealand data shows. Petrol and diesel costs for businesses rose 22.5 percent and 37.8 percent respectively in the year to September 2018. 

'Government in action'

Voices of Children deputy chief executive Hoani Lambert says Christmas can be a "difficult time for any families, for any number of reasons", but says there has been "a huge commitment to children from the Government to support our mahi".

"In the Budget, the Government committed just under $270 million over four years, as well as an additional $27.4 million for things like improvements to care placements and better transitions from care to independence," he told Newshub. 

Ms Maidaborn says poverty data is always 18 months behind where we're up to, "so we're a long way from having measures on that one year on".

However, she says she's confident New Zealand has a "Government in action". 

In 2017, 17,000 New Zealanders sought help with the basics of life from The Salvation Army in the lead up to Christmas. This year the organisation expects it to be "just as bad" without significant public support. 

But it's not something New Zealanders haven't heard before. In November 2016, The Salvation Army launched an "urgent" Christmas appeal as demand for food parcels soared. 

This was in part due to fallout from the Kaikoura earthquake. However, rising housing costs were a major factor in Kiwis struggling during the festive season in 2016, Ms Waugh said at the time. 

Also, food parcels handed out by Auckland City Mission increased by 25 percent in 2016 compared to the previous year, pointing to a pattern of increasing hardship for families, even under the previous National-led government. 

"The building blocks for moving forward are definitely being put in place [by the current Government] but it's very early to be able to measure outcomes," says Ms Maidaborn.

"Only 18 months ago, we were still arguing on a definition of poverty and we were still looking to figure out how the Government would come up with a plan."

But with primary teachers striking again over better pay and resources, and New Zealand being ranked among the world's most risky property markets, the outlook for hopeful families is far from perfect.