One in four Kiwi children living in poverty

BEN HEATHER AND STACEY KIRK
Last updated 14:08 09/12/2013

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More children living in crammed homes are ending up in hospital, as a new report shows one in four children remain mired in poverty.

A new rigorous measure of child poverty released today shows that about one in six Kiwi children are going without basic necessities. This could mean not having a bed, delaying a doctor's visit or missing out on meals.

It also shows hospital admissions for children with medical conditions linked to poverty are rising. Tens of thousands of children are admitted every year for respiratory and infectious diseases associated with living in damp, overcrowded homes.

"I see these poor preschool children in crowded homes that are cold and damp coming in with skin infections. They are filling our wards," Children's Commissioner Russell Wills, a Hawke's Bay paediatrician, said.

Children, particularly the youngest, remain the most impoverished group of New Zealanders, three times more likely to live in poverty than those past retirement age.

And the gap between those going without and the rest is showing no signs of narrowing, with children born to solo beneficiary parents by far the most likely to get sick or injured.

But child poverty is also reaching far beyond beneficiaries, with about two out of five impoverished kids living in working families. Overall 265,000 children live in poverty, which is measured by children living in households with less than 60 per cent of the median income after housing costs.

The report, called the Child Poverty Monitor, was commissioned by Dr Wills after the Government rejected calls to start a comprehensive measure of child poverty.

Instead the commissioner recruited private funding from Wellington charity J R McKenzie Trust and will now report back every year on the health and well- being of our most vulnerable children.

It is the second report in less than a week that has shone a poor light on child poverty, with Unicef reporting last week that New Zealand was failing to uphold the rights of children.

Otago University senior clinical epidemiologist Liz Craig, who helped write the commissioner's report, said it showed New Zealand had yet to "turn the corner" of poor child health.

Particularly worrying were babies living in damp, cold homes.

While there were more encouraging signs in a steady drop in the number of children being assaulted, the figures were muddied by changes in reporting and did not show a clear improvement, Dr Craig said."We are still killing seven or eight kids a year, so we can't be complacent."

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Dr Wills said the report was not an "ivory tower paper" but a reflection of the "grim reality" of children's health in 2013.

He said there remained widespread public ignorance about the extent of child poverty and how badly it had deteriorated in the past 30 years. "Child poverty has at least doubled by any measure since I was a kid."

Tackling child poverty needed a plan enshrined in law, similar to tackling road deaths, he said.

However, stronger public consensus was needed before politicians would act as it required tough choices, including removing assistance for some families to give to the most vulnerable.

"There will be winners and losers."

Labour housing spokesman Phil Twyford said the child poverty debate was inextricably linked to the standards of housing in New Zealand.

"This is the Kiwi cycle of poverty in the twenty first century: families under enormous stress because after they pay the rent there isn't enough to pay the bills. Add to that cold, damp houses and overcrowding."

He said families being forced to cram into small rental houses, and in extreme cases, sheds and garages, was a recipe for infectious childhood diseases.

"Since 2008, more than 40,000 children have been hospitalised for poverty related illnesses. Sadly, those figures have been rising."

Twyford's Healthy Homes Guarantee Bill was drawn from the members' bill ballot a few months ago.

It's awaiting its first reading in Parliament, but if it was passed, it would make it mandatory for all rental properties to meet minimum standards for insulation and having an efficient heating source.

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett said the ministry was already measuring child poverty, and the commissioner's report was just "repackaged" government figures.

"We have prioritised children, particularly those most vulnerable, and we're taking a thoughtful and strategic approach to tackling complex social issues."

But Labour spokeswoman Jacinda Ardern said the report showed the Government was taking the wrong approach and needed to focus more on child poverty rather than just on abuse.

Labour would fund the monitor if it was elected to Government, she said.

"It is a disgrace that the commissioner has had to go and get money from a charitable organisation for this."

Prime Minister John Key said the information the child monitor drew on wasn't new.

"It's Ministry of Social Development data that they've used, so it's not new data - it's been there for quite some time.

"And actually, if you look at some of the graphs I've seen, they show that poverty levels are actually lower," he said.

He told Breakfast this morning he was proud of the Government's record in tackling child poverty, but said the effects of those initiatives would only unfold over a period of years.

"I accept that they unfold over a long period of time, but if you take rheumatic fever I think we're the only Government that's had a serious view of trying to make sure we eradicate rheumatic fever.

"Insulation of homes - I think the previous Government over the course of about nine years insulated about 50,000 homes. We've insulated something like 300,000."

Key said the issue of child poverty was an issue far too complex to define, but he denied the Government was avoiding responsibility by not monitoring Child Poverty.

"That's not true, we monitor each of those individual components and pieces and that's what's important.

"But if you go and have a look at children and poverty, the way we monitor that is if their household income is 60 per cent less than the average wage."

The fastest way out of poverty was through work, Key said.

"That's the reality, if we can get households working, then what we end up doing is lifting the overall household income and we lift those children out of poverty."

STATE OF CHILD POVERTY

265,000 children live in poverty, defined by income.

1 in 3 Maori and Pacific children live in poverty.

1 in 7 European children live in poverty.

1 in 6 struggle to afford basic necessities such as healthcare and clothing.

1 in 10 suffer from severe poverty, lacking basic necessities and adequate income.

3 out of 5 will be living in poverty for much of their childhood.

51 per cent are from sole parent families.

60 per cent are from beneficiary families.

- The Dominion Post

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