Children's Commissioner says lack of focus on kids to blame for high rates of child poverty in NZ

The Children's Commissioner says if kids could vote, New Zealand wouldn't have a child poverty problem.

Instead we've spent significant resources on the elderly, Andrew Becroft told The AM Show on Wednesday.

A UNICEF report last week ranked New Zealand 35th out of 41 OECD and EU countries when it came to child wellbeing. Becroft says the problem was created very fast, and could be fixed just as quickly.

"Thirty years ago - bang, it happened straight away. This wasn't some evolving slow process," he explained.

"The financial shock of the late '80s, the 'Mother of All Budgets' of the 1990s - it suddenly changed. The rates [of child poverty] went up - bang - and they've stayed high rates of poor wellbeing ever since.

"Thirty years we've been asleep at the wheel - we haven't focused on children. I think we're waking up to it."

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw massive changes to the New Zealand economy. Labour implemented wide-ranging reforms known as 'Rogernomics', led by then-Finance Minister Roger Douglas, who went on to form the right-wing ACT Party.  

Labour's reforms were continued by National when it took power in 1990, culminating in then-Finance Minister Ruth Richardson's 'Mother of All Budgets' in 1991, which saw benefits slashed and Government services that were previously free made user-pays. Until then-Finance Minister Sir Bill English bumped benefits up a bit in 2015, they hadn't been increased beyond inflation since.

In contrast, superannuation rates have been pegged to average earnings - which generally increase faster than inflation. They're also universal - everyone over 65 is eligible, regardless of how rich they are or whether they actually need it. Superannuation will cost the taxpayer about $15 billion in 2020 - more than all other benefits combined.

Parents of children on the other hand have strict criteria and obligations that have to be met. Spending on sole parent support benefits in 2020 was about $1.1 billion - only 7 percent of that spent on superannuation. 

"In the last 30 years we prioritised the elderly - we look after that group," said Becroft. "If there was a UNICEF report for the elderly, we'd be right at the top."

Despite the lack of help, Becroft says the present Government has done more than any previous regimes to help kids out of poverty. The latest figures from Statistics NZ go up to Jun 2019, and show little change. 

"We were well-placed to deliver this year, but I guess COVID wrecked all that. I just hope we don't drop the ball next year." 

Jim Bolger, Prime Minister when Richardson took the axe to benefits, later regretted making such drastic changes.

"Neoliberalism... created massive unequal growth," he told the Otago Daily Times earlier this year.

"Wealth flowed uphill to the top, and they became massively, excessively, grossly wealthy. And the bottom... are barely surviving one paycheck to another."

Appearing with Becroft on The AM Show was Salvation Army policy analyst Ronji Tanielu, who blamed child poverty on "stink messaging".

He said the fact abortion laws have recently been liberalised and we're holding a referendum on doing the same for euthanasia is sending a message to parents that life isn't valuable.

"There needs to be a fundamental shift in the narrative and messaging that's going towards our children and young people."