Urgent action on child poverty needed

01:25, Oct 29 2013

Urgent steps are needed if New Zealand is to make any significant dent in child poverty, says the Office of the Children's Commissioner.

An expert advisory group set up by Children's Commissioner Russell Wills has released its progress report today, on what it believes must be done to tackle child poverty.

The commissioner's office estimates as many as 25 per cent - up to about 265,000 New Zealand children - live in poverty. A report last year laid out a number of initiatives New Zealand needed to undertake to lift families out of poverty.

A year on, the advisory group said good progress had been made, but it had been a "piecemeal" approach and was not adequate on its own to overcome the problem.

Group co-chairman, Victoria University Professor Jonathan Boston, said the Government had stepped up.

"The Government is also looking more closely at the impact of poor-quality housing on our children, with a warrant of fitness scheme to be rolled out across the state housing sector and $2.9 billion funding to expand social housing," he said.

"Business and communities have also stepped up.

"For example, significant business funding has been put into food-in-schools programmes, Dunedin City Council is looking to improve the quality of private rental accommodation and a number of charities have put money into child poverty initiatives.

"While this groundswell of work is positive, it will not be adequate given the magnitude of the challenge. Working in a piecemeal way, no matter how well-intentioned, is no way to tackle a complex problem like child poverty."

The report said the most urgent areas to address lay with the Government.

"New Zealand has never had a national strategy to combat child poverty and the Government has a key role in driving change and improving accountability for addressing child poverty," he said.

It also said specific steps needed to be taken to overhaul Working For Families.

The advisory group called for an "investment approach" to the family tax credit, saying it could be targeting more support where it mattered most and where child poverty was higher.

The Green Party however was less positive about the Government's involvement.

Co-leader Metiria Turei said it was an "embarrassment". The Government would not agree to measure child poverty.

The Children's Commissioner today revealed he had turned to a Wellington philanthropic trust to raise the $500,000 needed to measure and monitor child poverty, after the Government declined.

"The Children's Commissioner's Expert Advisory Group on Child Poverty has today called again for proper targets for tackling child poverty, but the National Government won't even agree to measure it," Turei said.

"By continuing to deny the extent of child poverty the National Government looks like cruel fools.

"Just because they have their fingers in their ears and their head in the sand doesn't mean that child poverty will go away.

"They've got targets for tackling crime and educational under-achievement, but won't set targets for reducing poverty, which is the driver of almost all negative indicators."

Labour Children's spokesperson Jacinda Ardern said it was concerning the Government didn't see the issue as a priority.

"If we are to make any real inroads into tackling child poverty then we need to collect the necessary data.

''New Zealanders deserve to know how well the government is performing in this area, and that means openly measuring, setting targets, and having a strategy to reduce it."

She said New Zealand was an outlier among 29 other OECD countries that did measure child poverty statistics.

Arden said Labour was committed to giving the role of Children's Commissioner - similar to that of the Commissioner for the Environment - complete independence, so it better hold the Government to account.