A new report on poverty underlines the fact that children who live in poverty find it harder to learn, the education union NZEI Te Riu Roa says.
The latest report by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), issued yesterday, said at least one in five children in New Zealand was living in poverty while 185,000 were living with severe or significant hardship.
CPAG said children most in need were those in beneficiary families which did not receive the Working for Families tax allowance.
Working for Families only helps families with incomes, and the report's authors said most of the 185,000 children it estimated to be living in poverty did not benefit from it.
Today NZEI president Frances Nelson said Auckland University research showed that the home and broader environment of students accounted for about 60 per cent of the variance in student achievement.
Without urgent work on the social factors which affected student learning, children's education would suffer, she said.
The report said that between 2000 and 2004, the number of children living in poverty increased by a third, with the children of beneficiaries the worst affected.
NZEI, which represents 48,000 teachers and support staff in early childhood, kindergarten and primary education, said the situation was likely to worsen with the rising costs of food, petrol and rent, putting more and more families under pressure.
This would affect student performance and achievement.
"As a society we need to ensure that children are well fed, well housed and well clothed so they can get the most out of their learning," Ms Nelson said.
"We need a wider social and government commitment to improving the lot of all New Zealand families and communities."
The Government has said it would study the report and present a "proper and considered" response to its recommendations.
Social Development Minister Ruth Dyson said today one child in poverty was too much, but she did not accept CPAG's method of calculating the number.
"The measurement I understand CPAG uses is 60 per cent of the median wage as a measure of poverty – that isn't one that the OECD or the Government traditionally uses," she said on Radio New Zealand.
Ms Dyson said the figure was "probably around 130,000 or 120,000".
"It's a complex issue, the report recommends a wide range of measures. I and my colleagues will be giving it a proper and considered response."
Meanwhile the Maori Party has welcomed the call for a wider debate about removing GST on food, sparked off by the poverty report.
"Desperate times call for bold responses – and that is what the public is wanting, not policy cowardice," said Tariana Turia, co-leader of the Maori Party and health spokesperson.
"We need to be looking at the big picture – about how we can improve the health and well-being of our most vulnerable citizens, now.
"And yet what we get from Labour and National is that they have ruled out even talking about dropping GST from food with the excuse that it may be too `complex' or `difficult to implement.
"What utter rubbish," said Mrs Turia. "Since when have good ideas been squashed because they may involve a bit of tricky policy thinking?
"Being administratively challenging is not a good enough excuse to avoid being socially responsible."
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