Child poverty: How the latest statistics compare to last year's report

There has been little change in the number of children living in material hardship and poverty, according to the latest Child Poverty Monitor report.

The blame is being placed on high housing costs and a lack of action on implementing the Welfare Expert Advisory Group's (WEAG) recommendations, with future improvements predicted to be hampered by the economic shock of COVID-19. 

The Child Poverty Monitor's latest technical report was released on Wednesday morning, collecting statistics from numerous sources to paint a picture of how bad many Kiwi kids have it.

While there have been some improvements, the situation is in many ways largely unchanged from previous years, the report shows.

The percentage of children living in both material hardship (going without six or more essentials) and income poverty (living in households with incomes below 60 percent of the median, after housing costs) has continued its downward trend, dropping from 9 percent in 2018 to 8.2 percent (92,300 children) in 2019, when the latest statistics were available. 

And the proportion of children living in households with incomes below 50 percent of the median, after housing costs, has dropped from 22.8 to 20.8 percent - a drop in real terms from 253,800 to 235,400. 

But the number living in material hardship (going without at least six essential items) remains at 13 percent - the same as the year before, but up in real terms from 148,000 to 150,000. The Government target by 2028 is 6 percent. 

The latest report also shows 6 percent of children - 66,100 of them - are living in severe material hardship (going without nine or more essentials). The percentage is unchanged from the year before, but up from 65,000 in real terms. The target is 3 percent. 

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft says "big, bold permanent changes" are needed if the Government is going to reach these targets. If that phrase sounds familiar, it's because Becroft said something almost identical this time last year - then calling for "big, bold changes". 

Housing woes

Māori and Pacific children are disproportionately disadvantaged. More than one in 10 Māori and one in seven Pacific kids "lived in a household that was locked in a situation of severe material shortage", the report said. 

They're also far more likely to live in a mouldy, damp home than kids of other ethnicities. Around 30 percent of kids live in homes that are "sometimes" or "always" damp - but for Māori it's 44 percent and Pasifika, 49 percent. 

The reason hardship is remaining static while the number living in extremely low-income households is dropping is largely the cost of housing, the report notes. More than three in 10 households with children in the lowest income bracket spend more than half their incomes on housing costs. 

Before housing costs are taken into account, the report says only 14.9 percent of children live in households with incomes less than 50 percent of the median (down from 16.5 percent) - rising to 20.8 percent after. 

"The rate of decline in this measure will need to at least continue (if not accelerate) in order to achieve the 2021 Government target" the report says, noting the "full impact" of the Government's 2018 Families Package was yet to show up in the statistics. The target is 10 percent for after housing costs, and 5 percent before. 

Recommendations ignored

In 2019 - when the latest numbers were collected - 14.8 percent of children lived in a household with an income less than 40 percent of the median, after housing costs, while in 2018 it was 15.7 percent; 21.4 percent are in households with less than 50 percent of the median - in 2018 it was 22.8 percent; and 29 percent under 60 percent, compared to 30.6 in 2018.

"While there have been some positive steps forward by the Government, this report demonstrates we need urgent change and bold leadership to ensure no child is left behind," said Child Poverty Action Group health spokesperson Innes Asher, who was on the WEAG panel. 

"After nearly two years since the release of the Welfare Expert Advisory Group recommendations, progress has been too slow, and it is to the detriment of children," said health spokesperson Innes Asher, who also was on the WEAG panel. 

"Our inadequate and ineffective welfare system continues to entrench poverty for children in households relying on income support. Children cannot wait - their minds, emotions, bodies are constantly developing and this development can be affected by chronic stress and lack of essentials."

She said of the WEAG's  42 key recommendations, none have been fully implemented - and under half have had partial or minimal progress.

"We share the Government's vision of a New Zealand that is the best place in the world to be a child but based on current policy settings, we're not going to get there. We need bold action, and we need it now".

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft.
Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft. Photo credit: The AM Show

COVID impact yet to show up in the figures

New Zealand weathered the COVID-19 economic storm better than most expected, but the report notes it's likely to have a negative impact on child poverty statistics in the near future. 

While initiatives such as the wage subsidy and generous COVIDome Relief Payments " no doubt made a difference in the day-to-day lives of low-income families", they're "not expected to offset the economic impacts of extended periods in lockdown and global recession". 

"There will be increases in poverty made up of those children in households already in poverty before COVID-19, plus those newly in poverty due to income loss due to COVID-19... Transformational change is needed more than ever by providing adequate income support through tax transfers and adequate benefit payment levels." 

Becroft's "three key solutions" are to:

  • raise family incomes by increasing benefits, enabling people to live with dignity 
  • increase the supply of state and social housing and bring in new ways to manage rental costs and quality 
  • help families meet their immediate needs, for example by expanding the food in schools programme and extending free medical care to everyone under the age of 18.

"Just as we came together to keep each other safe from COVID-19, we can choose to solve poverty and set a better course for our children's future. COVID-19 must the reason to do more for our tamariki, not an excuse to do less."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has made child poverty reduction a key promise, is expected to address the report's findings on Wednesday afternoon."

The Child Poverty Monitor is a partnership between the J R McKenzie Trust, the Office of the Children's Commissioner, and the New Zealand Child and Youth Epidemiology Service (NZCYES) at the University of Otago.