Child Poverty is everyone's problem - Children's Commissioner

Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills says it's the job of the whole country, not just Government, to make child ...

Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills says it's the job of the whole country, not just Government, to make child poverty a priority.

Nearly one-third of all New Zealand children are living in poverty and more than half of those kids will never escape it.

The latest Child Poverty Monitor report, released by Children's Commissioner Russell Wills, laid out a grim reality for more than 300,000 children. 

It draws on a number of different measures by the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) to paint a single picture of child poverty in New Zealand.

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While the number of children living in the most severe hardship has decreased slightly, a total of 29 per cent of children lived with income poverty, compared to 24 per cent at the last measure.

Children were also far more likely to be living in poverty than pensioners, of which 13 per cent lived on incomes that were less than 60 per cent of the current median income. That worked out to be around $30,600 or less.

Particularly worrying, about 14 per cent of children were living without basic essentials like fresh fruit and vegetables, a warm house and decent clothing. But it was difficult to interpret trends, because some of the measures had changed in the past year. 

"Overwhelmingly, the income measures are all worse," he said.

"That's consistent with health outcomes and data like the numbers of families requiring food parcels and extra benefits and having unmet housing need."

It was not just the role of Government however, to fix the problem, Wills said."But this is the single-most important determinant of short and long-term health, education and social outcomes for New Zealanders, yet we don't have a plan or targets," he said.

"Child poverty doesn't just affect the children. It affects all of us, because these children grow up with poor long-term health, education, social and employment outcomes."

University of Otago-based NZ Child and Youth Epidemiology Service director Dr Jean Simpson said bad health outcomes for children in poverty were "starkly apparent" in New Zealand's high rate of hospital admissions for preventable illnesses. 

"These diseases are related to living conditions. Being in damp, cold houses where there is overcrowding is bad for children's health." 

The number of New Zealand babies dying in their first year declined from 507 deaths in 1990 to 294 deaths in 2012, the report found.

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But the infant mortality rate of just over 4 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2012, was higher than the average of all OECD countries.

The monitor is a collaboration between the Office of the Children's Commissioner, Otago University's New Zealand Child and Youth Epidemiology Service and financial backer the JR McKenzie Trust.

Trust chair Iain Hines said to sustain progress it needed to remain high on the public agenda.

The Government has made child poverty one of its priorities in the past year. At the May Budget it unveiled a $790m package to increase benefits in families with children, by up to $25 a week. 

Social Development Minister Anne Tolley said the report told the Government nothing new.

"MSD does not rely on a single poverty measure – it uses several measures and thresholds to understand this complex issue, and advises that it is too simplistic to use just one measure to make definitive statements around numbers or percentages," she said.  

"We also monitor things like the number of children in benefit-dependent households, which has fallen by over 42,000 in the last three years. 
"We have acknowledged there is an issue with children in hardship, and we've delivered on a promise to do something about it. We are focussed on taking steps to help those families living on the lowest incomes rather than being focussed on a single measure."

Labour Party children spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern said income levels had to change. 

While some measures had slightly improved, "we see minor fluctuations year on year, but overall there is nothing to celebrate".

She said if the Government was serious about the issue, it would take on the production of the Child Poverty Monitor.

Ardern said Labour would undertake the report every year, and it would publish the results at every budget.


New Zealand needs to grow a heart to save money, anti-child poverty groups say. 

The Child Poverty Action Group's Nikki Turner said it was "a nonsense" to say New Zealand was a country that looked after its children.

 New Zealanders needed to put more money into the problem, including increasing benefit rates.

"We lack compassion in this country. We cannot see it from the view of the person who's living in poverty."

Unicef NZ national advocacy manager Deborah Morris-Travers said taking a "hands-off" approach wasn't working. 

Children in poverty lived in substandard housing, in cold, damp, mouldy conditions, she said.

Poor parents felt "judged and isolated" from others in the community.

'The stress that comes with not being able to feed your children adequately or pay the power bill is very real, and you can imagine a mother in that situation isn't going to be very emotionally available to her children."

The cost of child poverty to the country was about $6 billion annually, she said.

Turner said to date the country thought it was doing something about the problem, "but we're just talking a lot".

"Nobody has an idea of how hard it is for a family living in significant poverty, until they're there."


  • 305,000 Kiwi kids live in poverty - that's 29 per cent. 
  • 148,000 kids, or 14 per cent, go without the essentials - fruit, vegetables, warm housing and clothing.
  • Nine per cent of kids live in the most severe poverty
  • Three out of every five living in poverty, live that way for many years
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 - Stuff


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