Poverty burden for children increases in first year of COVID-19 due to Government neglect - Child Poverty Action Group

Poverty, inequity, homelessness, and food insecurity have increased for New Zealand children throughout the first year of COVID-19, partially due to Government neglect, the latest Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) report says.

CPAG is an independent charity that works to eliminate child poverty in New Zealand through research, education, and advocacy.

Its report, called The first year of COVID-19: Initial outcomes of our collective care for low-income children in Aotearoa New Zealand, was released on Tuesday and outlines the impacts low-income children faced during the first year of the pandemic.

New modelling in the report shows young Māori and Pacific children were about 2.5 to three times more likely than Pākehā children to have entered poverty in the 12 months after the start of the lockdown last year. Also, changes in youth homelessness and chronic absences for low-income students were worse for Māori and Pacific people than for Pākehā.

Report co-author and CPAG researcher Janet McAllister says caring for families should be at the heart of decision making, but children didn't get the prioritisation or policy outcomes they needed in 2020.

"It is thanks to the collective efforts of iwi, hapū, community organisations, schools, whānau and families - and low-income children themselves - that the crisis of poverty was not even worse," she says.

An additional 18,000 children were likely pushed into poverty in the 12 months to March 2021, even without taking rising housing costs into account, the report says.

"This increase in child poverty of around 10 percent comes at a time when property owners have seen their wealth rise at an accelerated rate," McAllister says.

"Loss of income related to job loss was probably inevitable for many families; but loss of income to the point of inadequacy - or further inadequacy - was due to political decision-making.

"The Government avoided one massive health and economic crisis but it enabled another one - that of poverty, homelessness and inequality - to grow rapidly."

She also says it is the responsibility of decision-makers to "deliberately and actively" avoid Māori and Pacific families bearing some of the heaviest burdens in hard times.

As an example, McAllister says Māori and Pacific applicants were much less likely than Pākehā to be awarded the COVID-19 Income Relief Payment, partially due to its design. Such discriminatory outcomes are unnecessary, says Leah Bain, report coauthor and acting CEO of the Public Health Association.

"Te Tiriti o Waitangi places an obligation on the Crown to ensure Māori and non-Māori have equitable outcomes - and we already know what has to happen to make this the norm," Bain says.

"Māori have been calling for decades for policy processes to be embedded in whakapapa and manaakitanga, and for power to be devolved to iwi, hapū and communities."

Along with new modelling, the report also uses publicly available data to show that in the first year of COVID-19, negative outcomes affected multiple aspects of life for low-income children and their communities.

Inequity increased family stress and caregiver loneliness, children were chronically absent from school, and there were increases in the cost of living between low-income and high-income families.

There were also few emergency housing arrangements for homeless people under 18 years old without families and food bank demand spiked in the first lockdown and remained at about double pre-COVID levels.

"With COVID-19 stretching resources and attention in the immunisation sector, careful management is required to ensure we do not see resurgence in preventable diseases, particularly among children in deprived areas," said co-author Professor Nikki Turner from the Immunisation Advisory Centre at the University of Auckland.

But there were some positive effects of COVID-19 on children. For most qualifications, the attainment rate gap closed between low and high-income areas, which could be due in part to special pandemic NCEA rules.

CPAG's report also draws on Māori research, ERO reports, and news stories to show how Māori health organisations, schools, and others in the community helped alleviate distress and meet physical, social, mental, and spiritual needs. It gives examples including teachers who'd call parents when they were out of phone credit to touch base with them, or how Māori health organisations would distribute a wide range of items from arts and crafts packs to firewood and toiletries.

"The stories show how Māori frameworks and approaches are extremely relevant to our communities, and resilient in times of disaster," Bain says.

"If Government and our communities across the board further embraced the thought leadership so generously given by Māori, all of Aotearoa New Zealand would benefit even more."

In a statement, Minister for Child Poverty Reduction Jacinda Ardern said the Government had tried to mitigate the economic impacts of COVID-19 on Kiwis on the lowest incomes.

She points to the benefit increases, changes to income support, the COVID-19 rent freeze and wage subsidies as evidence of the measures to help struggling families.

"On our official measures we have lifted 43,000 children out of poverty on the after housing cost measure," she said.

"We know there is more to do and we remain committed to making New Zealand the best place in the world to be a child."