Government says no change in child poverty rates 'encouraging' considering pressures, but other parties not impressed

The Government says a lack of change in child poverty rates is "encouraging" considering pressures facing families and means its measures have been effective in stopping more children from falling into poverty.

But other political parties aren't impressed. National says Labour isn't making any progress to help some of New Zealand's most vulnerable, ACT says the Government doesn't have the answers to help, and the Greens say the figures show more can be done.

StatsNZ on Thursday morning revealed in the year to June 2022 the child poverty rates were unchanged compared with the year prior. 

The Child Poverty Reduction Act lays out a number of measures through which progress can be analysed.

Overall, eight of the nine measures have had significant decreases in the four years from June 2018, but the primary measures didn't change in the year to June 2022.

For example, one in nine New Zealand children live in low-income households that had less than 50 percent of the median equivalised disposable household income before deducting housing costs. One in ten children lived in households experiencing material hardship.

StatsNZ said a household is in material hardship if they are going without six or more of 17 items most people would regard as essential.

However, due to reduced data collection, sample errors (uncertainties about statistics when only a sample of the population is surveyed) for all measures and breakdowns were larger than in previous years.

Jan Tinetti, the Minister for Child Poverty Reduction, said that despite a challenging environment - noting the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn - efforts by the Government "have ensured that New Zealand children have not fallen backwards".

She said that last year, only five of the measures had seen significant decreases since 2018.

"It's a challenging environment but child poverty figures staying steady this year is encouraging. It shows the Government's policies targeting kids and families are helping, despite the pandemic and tough economic times," she said.

"Programmes like the COVID-19 Wage Subsidy Scheme, the doubling of Winter Energy payments and increases to Working for Families and benefit levels have ensured child poverty rates have continued to track down."

She said the Government acknowledges families are doing it tough, but pointed to increases to benefits and the minimum wage among other initiatives.

"Looking ahead, the Government’s biggest priority is to support New Zealanders facing cost-of-living pressures – particularly low-income households and those affected by Cyclone Gabrielle and recent flooding.  

"The bread-and-butter package of support announced last week will be critical in helping approximately 1.4 million people with the cost of living. Families are also benefiting from earlier measures including the extension of half-price fares on public transport, fuel tax cuts, and minimum wage increases."

Child poverty rates for the year ended June 2022 were unchanged compared with the prior year, StatsNZ said.
Child poverty rates for the year ended June 2022 were unchanged compared with the prior year, StatsNZ said. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Louise Upston, National's child poverty reduction spokesperson, said Labour isn't making any progress.

"Just as many families and communities are being plagued by child poverty in 2022 as in 2021 – and with the cost of living crisis continuing to bite, it's hard to see Labour getting any traction in 2023 either," she said. 

"It's not good enough for the Government just to say that they care – people need action and results."

Upston said the public housing waitlist has skyrocketed under Labour, while rents and food prices have also risen. 

"National knows that New Zealanders want to see child poverty rates falling and fewer families in hardship. While Labour failed to make meaningful change, National has a plan. 

"National will deliver relief for Kiwi families. FamilyBoost – National's childcare tax rebate – is expected to benefit 130,000 families, who will benefit up to $3900 a year to help meet their childcare costs."

Karen Chhour of the ACT Party said future results would be worse once the cost of living crisis is factored in.

"One in 5 Māori children were living in material hardship. What they need are parents with good jobs in a growing economy. Labour has no answer for that. Its answer has always been more welfare. But welfare-dependent households have worse social and economic outcomes, particularly for the children."

She said ACT voted against the Child Poverty Reduction Bill as "passing a law and throwing more welfare at families wasn't the answer to child poverty". 

"These kids deserve a better future. What is needed are policies that will grow the economy and create good paying jobs for Kiwis.

"Rather than locking so many New Zealanders into a cycle of poverty, ACT will bring real change with policies designed to grow the economy and allow more Kiwis to find work and create a better future for their families."

Greens MP Ricardo Menéndez March said the Government must immediately provide more support to families doing it the toughest.

"The tools to lift every family and child out of poverty exist, the Government just needs to use them. They can start by increasing benefits to liveable levels, expanding Working for Families, and doubling Best Start and making it universal for the first three years," said Menéndez March.

"There is nothing more important than a warm, safe, affordable place to call home, with food on the table.

He said rising prices do not "impact everyone equally, and those on the lowest incomes are being hit the hardest."

The child poverty data follows two reports out on Wednesday showing the welfare system "responded better than expected" during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, Opposition parties said the number of people on a main benefit was still above pre-COVID levels.