'All measures' of child poverty 'trending downwards', reflecting Jacinda Ardern's policies

New official data shows "all measures of child poverty were trending downwards" across the last two years since June 2018 - an improvement on last year's update. 

But the data doesn't reflect the impact of COVID-19. The lockdown in March 2020 affected Stats NZ's ability to collect data from households for child poverty statistics. Therefore, the data only covers nine months, to March 2020.

The data provided by Stats NZ shows the percentage of children living in households that experienced material hardship dropped from 149,000 in 2019 to 125,000 in 2020. 

It found that the number of children experiencing severe material hardship also decreased, from 64,600 in 2019 to 53,000 in 2020.

There is no single measure of poverty in New Zealand. The Child Poverty Reduction Act 2018 sets out a multi-level, multi-measure approach to measuring child poverty. 

As well as looking at incomes before and after housing costs, Stats NZ reports on material hardship, defined as households missing out on more than six of the 17 basic things most people would regard as essentials, such as fruit and vegetables, doctor visits or paying gas and electricity bills. 

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

Over the last year since June 2019, both material hardship measures decreased, while the low-income measures remained relatively unchanged. In the year ended June 2020, about one-in-nine children lived in households reporting material hardship, down from about one-in-eight in the year ended June 2018. 

The latest data is an improvement on last year's update from Stats NZ which found there had been "no significant change" in material hardship rates since 2017.  

In the year ended June 2020, almost one-in-five Māori children - 19 percent - live in households that reported going without six or more of the 17 basic needs. The rate was higher for Pacific children at 25.4 percent. This compares with 11 percent for all Kiwi kids. 

Why is the data improving?

Stats NZ experts say the improvement in child poverty data is a result of the Government's policies, including the $5 billion Families Package, which was not fully reflected  in last year's results. 

The Opposition used the data in 2020 to attack Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who made child poverty reduction one of her major focuses in Government. 

The Government announced in 2017 it would spend $5.3 billion over the following four years on a plan to help low-income families and cut the child poverty rate by nearly 50 percent. 

The package comprised three core components: Working for Families tax credit increases, a new payment for new-borns called Best Start, and a new winter energy payment for beneficiaries and pensioners. 

The Government also introduced a $25 a week boost to the benefit last year and doubled the winter energy payment - $40 a week for singles and $63 for couples and those with dependent children paid out from May to October. 

The Government also indexed benefits to average wage growth which will see benefits steadily rise, and lifted the abatement threshold in line with minimum wage increases - that's the reduction of beneficiaries' payments when they earn more money.

"I'll be looking for the full effects over that two year period of the Working for Families package because none of our data to date has fully taken that into account," Ardern said on Monday. 

"As I've always said, what we did immediately when COVID hit, lifting general benefits rates, increasing the winter energy payment, and the benefits of having already indexed benefits to increases in wages - all of that will make a difference.

"But we do have an obligation I think to keep looking at the adequacy of benefits in New Zealand. That's what the working group asked us to do and we've always said we have more work to do there."

The Child Poverty Act 2018, led by Ardern, requires Stats NZ to report annually on a set of nine measures - one of them being material hardship.

The legislation passed into law on 20 December 2018.