NZ Election 2020: National's aim of reducing child poverty by targeting material hardship 'contradictory' - Jacinda Ardern

Labour leader Jacinda Ardern on the campaign trail in the West Coast.
Labour leader Jacinda Ardern on the campaign trail in the West Coast. Photo credit: Newshub

National's aim of reducing child poverty by targeting material hardship - the measure it says "really counts" - has been described as "contradictory" by Labour leader Jacinda Ardern.

National launched its children policy on Friday which included an ambition to "drive a reduction in child poverty by establishing a meaningful reduction target for what really counts - the number of children suffering material hardship".

Ardern is Minister for Child Poverty Reduction and said during the 2017 election campaign that her goal was to end child poverty, but Stats NZ data in February showed there was "no significant change" in kids living in material hardship. 

The latest figures cover the year to June 2019 and show seven measures did improve on the previous year, one measure was unchanged and material hardship increased slightly by 0.2 percentage points. 

Ardern often refers to the seven measures that did improve when discussing her Government's progress on child poverty, but National argues that the only one that matters is material hardship because it defines households that can't afford the basics. 

It is considered to be a more direct measure of child poverty than income measure, for example, because two households with the same income may receive outside financial benefits from family or other means.

But Ardern says National is contradicting itself because it plans to means test BestStart, a Government payment for parents of new-borns where families who qualify can receive $60 per week until their baby turns one.

The payment is currently available to all parents of new-borns no matter how much they earn, and it's then means-tested after the first year. National plans to means-test the payment from the first year. 

"I also saw that they intend to cut the payment to support for families in the first year of a child's life, so that seems to be, to me, contradictory," Ardern said on Friday. 

"If we want to meaningfully support children and ensure they get the best start then I wouldn't want to see a reduction in the support they have."

But National is also promising up to $3000 for all expecting parents to spend on baby support services. Parents would receive a nominal funding amount against which they could commission approved services.

During the TVNZ leaders' debate earlier this week, National leader Judith Collins accused Ardern of doing nothing to address child poverty like she had promised. 

Ardern pushed back, highlighting the seven measures that had improved, but her statement has been ruled as "misleading" by AAP FactCheck, who said the changes were "not statistically significant and only partially cover" the first year of her Government.  

"While 2017 figures show improvement in six measures, seven measures worsened in 2018. Longer-term, only two measures had been consistently declining, while the remaining seven measures had shown little change in the seven years for which figures were available."

Ardern argues she has improved child poverty by introducing the $5 billion Families Package in 2017, which included the BestStart payments and a new winter energy payment for beneficiaries and pensioners.

Ardern also spearheaded the Child Poverty Act 2018, which requires Stats NZ to report annually on a set of nine measures - one of them being material hardship. It passed into law on 20 December 2018.

The Government also started a school free lunch programme in 2019, which is being expanded to reach around 200,000 students by the end of 2021. It targets schools where students are facing the 25 percent highest level of disadvantage.

"When it comes to material hardship, that's a measure of children's access for instance to things like healthy meals," Ardern said.

"We have a food in schools programme and I've heard no support from National over it and it's one of the practical things we can do to improve the wellbeing of kids."