Little progress in child poverty - Unicef report

FOOD COMES FIRST: Mum and tutor Tania Pene said the best move the Government could make to fight child poverty would be to increase wages. 
MAARTEN HOLL/ Fairfax NZ
FOOD COMES FIRST: Mum and tutor Tania Pene said the best move the Government could make to fight child poverty would be to increase wages. 

Prime Minister John Key has defended the Government's position on child poverty, after a United Nations report slammed progress made on the issue by saying it had barely made a dent.  

New Zealand's child poverty rates have come down by less than half a per cent since 2008, according to the Unicef report Children of the Recession.

By contrast, Australia reduced its child poverty rate by more than 6 per cent over the same period, and Finland and Norway, countries with similar populations, reduced theirs by more than 4 per cent and 3 per cent respectively.

Unicef NZ national advocacy manager Deborah Morris-Travers said the report showed that growth in child poverty during a recession was not inevitable, and some countries had even reduced it.

"[New Zealand's decrease is] really minimal, and when we're talking about so many New Zealand children going without the things they need. We've got to get very serious about this."

The report also showed that three out of the four well-being indicators in New Zealand - food insecurity, overall satisfaction with life, and opinions on whether children have an opportunity to learn and grow - worsened between 2007 and 2013.

Fourteen per cent of New Zealanders said there was a time in the past year when they did not have enough money to buy food for themselves or their family, up five percentage points since 2007.

Morris-Travers said the approach to tackling poverty had been piecemeal and marginal.

"Even things like screening for rheumatic fever, and increasingly the availability of food in schools, are still pretty small investments compared to what is required."

Child Poverty Action Group spokesman Mike O'Brien said: "There's been no appropriate or sensible or careful or sustained decisions in terms of policy response or government response."

Key has asked officials to present new ideas on how to tackle child poverty, but has been criticised by opposition parties for his unwillingness to take measures that would increase incomes.

Acting Deputy Labour Leader Annette King said the report could not be another "wake up call", it had to be "the impetus for addressing the problem once and for all".

"That means putting the wellbeing of our kids at the top of the to-do list and coming up with some real policies that help in the short and long term.

"Child poverty rates have been shown to decrease in countries where measures have been introduced to improve income equity.

"Other practical steps include establishing a national child poverty reduction strategy, adopting an official definition and measure of child poverty, and ensuring policies address poor housing conditions and access to health care," King said.

"John Key should be embarrassed by how well Australia managed to protect its children during the global financial crisis, and actually implemented initiatives to reduce child poverty during that period," Greens co-leader Metiria Turei said yesterday.

If the Government wanted to deal with child poverty, it would have to enact a range of new policies to support the poor, she said.

Today, Key said the comparison with Australia was not an accurate one. 

"Any child that lives in poverty is a negative outcome, so we obviously want to lift children out of poverty. The point I think you'd have to make though, is Australia had more fiscal head room and more cash to spend. 

"They didn't have the Christchurch Earthquakes, and they never went into recession. We had the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). Now Australia's starting to be affected some time later for a variety of other reasons," he said.

The Government had since focused on getting New Zealand's economic levels back to those of 2008 before the GFC.

"And we've got a number of initiatives that will help; free doctors visits [for under 13s], the work we're doing around debt and loan sharks, a stronger economy will help lift more children out of poverty. 

"On top of that, as you know, it's one of the focuses I'm going to have over the course of the next while, looking at those kids in really extreme forms of deprivation," Key said. 

JUGGLING FINANCES TO FEED FAMILY

Tania Pene prides herself on always putting food on the table, though sometimes it's a juggling act.

"It might not be big amounts to have leftovers with, but we're doing OK," the Lower Hutt mother of four says.

"I budget for it . . . I pride myself in not going to foodbanks. I used to get dragged there [by family], so I've set standards for myself to not go there."

The Youth Guarantee Scheme course tutor works full-time, and has about $700 a week to cover rent, bills, and food for herself and her children, aged between 21 months and 17 years.

Her income, made up of wages and Working For Families credits, puts her above the poverty line, but she still has to juggle to make it work.

If something unexpected comes up, like a bond, a gift, or a bigger than usual power bill, she has to forgo something else, or get a Work and Income grant or loan.

"There is stuff we can't afford sometimes, like extra clothing, different meats . . . there'd sometimes be no going out, and could even stop an automatic payment to pay for something else."

When the family needed to shift house last year, they stayed with her sister and her three children for a while and then applied for emergency accommodation until they could get into a Housing New Zealand or city council flat.

The best thing the Government could do for families on low incomes would be to increase wages, and make budgeting services more accessible, Pene said.

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